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Implementing Best Practices for Math Instruction

By Angela Bunyi on December 10, 2010

In the past I have utilized a workshop approach to teaching math; however, this year my team has worked together to incorporate many other strategies and frameworks, including a workshop approach, to best meet the needs of our students. It requires that we all work together closely, and it also means that we take responsibility for our entire grade level. I really enjoy working with the other 5th grade teachers to plan, assess, and reflect on daily and weekly lessons, and I am confident it has made me a better teacher. From small group instruction and flexible grouping to shared and common assessments, I'd like to share what my team is doing this year.

Photo: Students take math outside using tools to practice adding decimals.

What Are Best Math Practices?

So often we hear "best practices" and we think about literacy practices. And really, best practices ARE best practices regardless of subject area, socioeconomic status, or grade level. However, I thought it was interesting to research what exactly are considered best math practices. One of my favorite best practices lists comes from Beaverton School District in Oregon. They introduce their list of 14 best practices this way:

Recognizing that the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement, teachers need to know and understand the Mathematics they will be teaching as well as participate in on-going professional development to enhance knowledge of content and pedagogy.  To incorporate the following best practices effectively, teachers need to routinely reflect and collaborate on instructional practices, student progress, and know and understand the Mathematics they will be teaching at a deep enough level to be able to explain and apply his/her understanding in a variety of formats.

I encourage you to use the link above to read the list!

Three Best Practices Share

I'd like to share our grade level experiences incorporating three of the best practices from the list in the link above. By no means do I believe we are implementing all possible best practices, nor do I have the time and space to share everything we are doing well. But I would like to focus on how we are managing flexible grouping, assessment, and collaboration through snapshots from previous units.

Assess to inform instruction and summarize learning

My grade level team members all work together to help improve instruction for our students. This includes giving ourselves the flexibility of moving from one classroom to another. The key for us is having pre-tests that are specific enough that the information they cover can be taught and measured within three weeks (or fewer). Beyond that, we also create shared assessments on a weekly basis to determine what has been retained or needs to be revisited. With our first round of flexible grouping, the average test scores went from 40% on the pre-test to 95% on the post-test in a three week period! 

Snapshot from a recent fraction unit . . .

In a recent unit involving fractions, we created a pre-test on specific skills we wanted to address in the three week period. After grading the pre-tests, our team met to discuss what resources we had and which teacher would best work with the flexible groups being created. Because I had been in 3rd grade the previous year, I had the resources and recent experience to help students who needed extra support. But even though I did not work with students who already demonstrated mastery, I was able to share several resources to help my teammate who did. 

After our groups were created, we dedicated ourselves to meeting each day during our lunch period (outside of the teacher's lounge for confidentiality). During this time, we discussed whether to move students from one room to another, and generally got to know our students better as a whole. Having the time to bounce ideas around, seek help for individual students, or share instructional practices really assisted. It was also helpful to have weekly formative assessment check-ups to see what needed to be revisited or celebrated. 

Provide differentiated classroom instruction using a variety of  instructional methods and interventions

In previous years I spent the bulk of my time teaching whole group (I'm not proud), mainly teaching small group when using a workshop model. After a math presenter I greatly admire, Rachel McAnallen, caused me to seriously question a framework that only uses small group discussion on a daily basis, I now use whatever method will best meet the needs of my students.

Snapshot from our fraction unit . . .

With some skills, inquiry-based projects and tasks might work best. For instance, we might start our math lesson for the day with a mini-lesson, move on to group work, and then meet all together to discuss our findings, questions, and learning — both out loud and in writing. Resources such as Math Exemplars, Cartoon Corner, or hands-on manipulatives assist with this goal. On other days, students might rotate through different stations, working with me, a parent, and independently. Groups are created based on the most recent classroom assessment and are grade-free to allow students to get help without the fear of grades. When a skill is new and challenging, it might be best to teach using a whole group method. It just all depends! Whether students are heading outside to estimate the height of a tree or working with me in a small group, they seem to benefit from the flexibility, from not being locked into one mode of instruction each day.

Establish school/family/community partnerships

On an almost daily basis we have access to parent help. If that's not the case at your school, perhaps a teacher aide could be assigned to work with you in the classroom regularly. It makes a difference. It has also made a huge difference being able to collaborate closely with my grade-level partners. We share resources and offer each other support and guidance — all for the benefit of the students.

Snapshot from our fraction unit . . .

With the help of a very knowledgeable teacher assistant and another parent, we were able to break students up into groups of five or six and work with each group alone for one full hour. You can only imagine how successful both students and teachers felt after the hour was up. On average, we were able to do this once a week. 

But what if a student still needed additional help after the hour was up? In our grade level, we have thirty minutes built into our schedule for RTI purposes. During this time we have been instructed to not teach any new content. This became a perfect time to provide an additional thirty minutes for support in math, when needed. Add that to our daily hour block, and some students were able to get an hour and a half of math instruction and support daily. While one teacher focused on math skills and support, another teacher could work with a group of students on reading comprehension skills, and yet another teacher could work on brain puzzles and challenges. This has also been an ideal way to catch up students who have been absent. 

Here is our daily schedule, if you are interested in building in time for additional math assistance:

8:15–8:35 Warm-up, morning routine

8:35–10:35 Literacy block

10:35–11:35 Math

11:39–12:30: Lunch/recess

12:30–12:40 Spelling or read-aloud

12:40–1:40 Science/social studies

1:40–2:25 Special areas

2:30–3:00 RTI/Extra support in math and reading

3:00–3:05 Pack up

3:05–3:20 Read-aloud/share


Time to Share Your Best Math Practices

What math practices have impacted your students the most? Please share! Our team is still growing and learning, and new ideas are always appreciated. 




Comments (10)


How odd! I have a Mac at school where it works and a PC at home that works as well. The link addresses are different, but they are in fact the same thing. Odd!


Thanks for doing the research Katie!


Angela, thank you for these ideas! My computer couldn't read the best practices at the link you shared, so I tried googling the school district and searching their website. This is the website that worked for me, in case others have the same trouble:



I work with gifted and high-achieving students, so I guess my perception would be altered. However, I think Cartoon Corner would be EXCELLENT if you are looking for a challenge in your class. I would recommend the following layout: independently struggle with the questions for 5 minutes, work with a partner for 15 minutes, come back and discuss for 10 minutes. With each lesson there are suggestions from actual teachers and modifications to better meet your class needs. I highly recommend it.



Angela, I noticed that Cartoon Corner is for grades 6-8. Are the majority of your 5th graders successful in completing the problems? Thanks!


Yes, sorry there wasn't a link at first for the book. This is a great resource that comes from NCTM (more information in the above comment). The first time I used it, I gave a time limit to "Stay in the struggle" and when I called time, I had many students sigh because they wanted more time. It's that good. And once I was ready to go over the answers and a few students asked if they could go into the hall because they wanted to work it out on their own first at HOME. They were ready to create their OWN HOMEWORK!

My quick summary- A real cartoon that deals with a math concept is presented. Under the cartoon strip, several scenerios are presented that involve the cartoon, math, and higher-order thinking. Although the "skill" is not listed on the activities, you'll know that it will require the use of a particular skill taught to answer the questions.

I hope that helps!



My first stop would be any resources by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The majority of my math book/lesson resources come from here. This includes Cartoon Math, and the Navigating through series. Even there website resources are top notch- http://illuminations.nctm.org/. I just borrowed an order of operation BINGO game from them this week. Great stuff!

After that, my two favorite resources cater to gifted/high-achieving students. Materials are harder to find and purchase. This includes work by Kathy Gavin and Rachel McAnallen.

I hope that helps!


Angela, Can you elaborate on what you mean by "math cartoons?" Thanks!


Angela, Thanks so much for this information! I am trying to make my 4th grade math more engaging for my students--do you have any particular professional books and/or resources that you find particularly useful? "Math Exemplars" looked like a great program, but is unfortunately not something that my school can take on at this time. Any advice would be appreciated!


Thanks for sharing. The combination of word problems, whole group, small group, talk and reasoning, and a student lead closing sounds like a great balance of methods! Keep up the great work. :)


We are doing a Math Workshop this year as well. It has a short teacher led opening with a word problem. Then the students work in groups on a harder word problem. During this time teachers can only ask question to help students with the problem. Then we have a student led closing where they explain how to solve the word problem. this has beeen the most important part and allows you to see the most growth with the students. I have also tried to do some previwing this year (in centers) with both my high and low performing students in math, which has helped as well.

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