Math classrooms are mosaics of strengths and experiences. When we have students with diverse backgrounds—with various languages, abilities, and interests—in the same space, everyone learns from each other and broadens their world.
On the flip side, though, teaching math to a broad array of students can be challenging. Do you struggle to reach all of your students? Are you a newer teacher who is looking to improve your practice? The strategies for differentiated instruction provided here might help you out.
What Is Differentiated Math Instruction?
Differentiated math instruction refers to the collection of techniques, strategies, and adaptations you can use to reach your diverse group of learners and make mathematics accessible to every single one. Dr. Timothy Kanold, former president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM)—and HMH author—clarifies that differentiation in a math lesson is “differentiation on the entry points into the task for support or the exit point to support student thinking.”
By applying various tools and strategies, such as incorporating technology, assigning hands-on projects, and teaching in math small-group formats, you can help every student meet expectations. We know that there are different schools of thought regarding what differentiation means. When we use the term, we are talking about providing student choice, voice, and agency. Differentiating instruction isn’t meant to add more work to your day. Quite the opposite, in fact; it’s meant as a teaching approach that will help you to reach more students in terms of accessibility and equity, making your job both easier and more effective in the long run.
Why Is Differentiating Math Instruction Important?
Some people think that math, more than any other subject, is the best fit for differentiation. Even though a 2018 survey by Texas Instruments found that 46% of kids said they really liked math, there are hundreds of books, websites, and memes discussing the difficulty of the subject. From the anxiety caused by there being only one correct answer to the cultural buy-in to the myth of being—or not being—a “math person” to the fear of solving a word problem, many students struggle with math. In addition, many students and educators alike find it hard to make the connection between math and the real world, which only increases disillusionment with the subject. That’s why it’s especially important to be open to new ways of delivering instruction.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) promotes differentiating math instruction for differences in learning as well as differences in talent, interest, and confidence. NCTM advises that the need is greater in middle and high school, as higher-level math relies on more complex reasoning. When you differentiate your math instruction, you support all learners by targeting and addressing specific needs of groups and individual students.
Examples of Differentiated Instruction in Math
Do you need ideas for how to differentiate your teaching to be sure your math students are progressing? Below are seven differentiation strategies for math instruction, along with ways that you can use them in your math classroom. They serve as examples of differentiated instruction in math and may work better for some classrooms and math topics than others. Customize these ideas however you need to serve you and your students.
Strategy 1: Math Centers
For this, you’ll need to come up with a few activities your students can rotate through (be sure to browse our library of free activities and resources!), such as watching a video, reading an article, or solving a word problem. We spoke with Kristy McFarlane, an instructional supervisor at Sandshore Elementary School in New Jersey, about differentiation. “Our math teachers spend about 10 minutes each day doing a mini-lesson for the whole class, and then students spend 15 minutes at each of the various stations,” she says, referring to math centers as math stations. “They might meet with the teacher in a small group for extra help, use math software, do a game or project at the hands-on station, or do seat work based on the day’s mini-lesson.”
Math centers are a powerful way to facilitate independent and small group learning within your classroom. Our Go Math! program, for example, is known for embedding resources and instructional time to math centers. If a select group of your students are all struggling to, say, add fractions, they may benefit from an activity that has them practice finding least common denominators. Think about ways to customize the groupings and centers so they’re perfect for your students’ strengths, misconceptions, and interests, and make use of tools that strategically group students and recommend activities for you.
Strategy 2: Activity Cards
Choice is an important part of differentiation, and letting students decide how they want to spend their time is a great way to appeal to various learning preferences. You’ll need to come up with math problems, tasks, or questions. As much as possible, use or create cards that span several lessons and offer options to work independently, with a partner, or in a small group. Ask for feedback so you can adjust future learning accordingly. Many of HMH’s math programs, including Into Math and Go Math!, include inquiry-based task and project cards that help teachers differentiate.
Strategy 3: Choice Boards
As we just mentioned, giving students the ability to make decisions about their learning is an important part of differentiation. A choice board is a graphic organizer that gives students activities to choose from. There are different types of choice boards, but they need to focus on specific learning needs, interests, and skills. Choice boards increase student ownership; students pace themselves and get to decide how to engage with information, along with how to demonstrate their learning. Some teachers create different versions of the same choice board; others will color-code options to signify topic, activity type, or expected level of challenge. Check out the choice board we developed for remote learning. This board covers all subjects but also includes a free template to get you started on a math-only version.
Strategy 4: Math Journals
Having students write about math is a great way for them to reflect on what they’ve learned and get ELA instruction within the math classroom. This is especially powerful for multilingual learners, as math class becomes an environment for them to focus on their written communication in English. Encourage your kids to summarize key points, answer open-ended questions, tie math into everyday experiences, or write about the most interesting or challenging math lesson. It’s also a way to provide an entry point for all students, as they can write a little or a lot, or can even draw instead. Similar to activity cards, math journals are included in many of HMH’s math programs, including Into Math.
Strategy 5: Learning Contracts
If metacognition is the ability to think about thinking—including about how you learn—we owe it to students to help them develop and expand their metacognitive skills. One way to do this is to work on learning contracts. Throughout the year, ask students to reflect on important lessons and set learning goals, including skills to learn or improve as well as new areas to explore. Use these learning contracts to help students learn to organize their thoughts. “One of our district’s goals is to have personalized learning opportunities for all students,” says McFarlane. “Each student creates a personalized success plan at the beginning of the year and does regular check-ins.” More broadly, metacognition is an idea that can be taught and practiced in the classroom and applies broadly to any subject.
Strategy 6: Math Games
Games are fun, motivational, and can help students deepen their mathematical reasoning. Some games encourage students to develop strategic and problem-solving skills or improve computational fluency. Seek out games where the math learning objective matches the game objective as a way for students to find joy in learning. Go Math! was designed to include both ready-made games for math centers and recommended games for differentiation within the teacher’s edition.
You can also use non-math games as either a reward that offers a short mental break or a context for having math discussions. Look for ways to turn the game into mathematical discourse. How could you have scored more points? How much time did it take? What strategies did you use?
Strategy 7: Digital Math Practice
There are also lots of math apps and online tools that, while not always games, are designed to reinforce foundational understanding by allowing students to practice arithmetic and other math standards. In particular, seek out apps that are not simply timed drills with fun graphics, which are likely to make math anxiety worse for students who are not yet fluent in math facts. For digital math practice that extends far beyond just practicing arithmetic, our newest Go Math! for Grades K–6 has adaptive and personalized practice that aligns to our supplemental practice program, Waggle.
This month, pick one of these ideas to try and see how it goes. If none of these strategies appeal to you, consider giving your students problem-solving tasks with open-ended solutions. A single math problem can reveal different ways that students work through it, which might be a less time-consuming way to assess student progress and begin to differentiate.
When you think critically about how to transform math instruction into differentiated math instruction, students will be more engaged because the content will be more relevant. They will achieve more success because they’ll be experiencing different types of activities, using various modalities, and contributing to the best of their abilities as they continue to grow.
HMH offers a variety of math classroom solutions to help you reach every student. Just looking for more articles and resources to help you differentiate math instructions? Try one of these to keep reading!
This blog post, originally published in 2021, has been updated for 2022.
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