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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Mathematics Opinion

Four Teacher-Recommended Instructional Strategies for Math

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 11, 2021 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used to teach math?

This post is part of a longer series of questions and answers inviting educators from various disciplines to share their “single most effective instructional strategy.”

Two weeks ago, educators shared their recommendations when it came to teaching writing.

Last month, it was about teaching English-language learners.

There are many more to come!

Today, Cindy Garcia, Danielle Ngo, Patrick Brown, and Andrea Clark share their favorite math instructional strategies.

‘Concrete Representational Abstract’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently a district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

The single most effective strategy that I have used to teach mathematics is the Concrete Representational Abstract (CRA) approach.

During the concrete step, students use physical materials (real-life objects or models) to explore a concept. Using physical materials allows the students to see and touch abstract concepts such as place value. Students are able to manipulate these materials and make sense of what works and what does not work. For example, students can represent 102, 120, and 201 with base 10 blocks and count each model to see the difference of the value of the digit 2 in each number.

During the representational step, students use pictures, images, or virtual manipulatives to represent concrete materials and complete math tasks. Students are making connections and gaining a deeper understanding of the concept by creating or drawing representations.

During the abstract step, students are now primarily using numbers and symbols. Students working at the abstract stage have a solid understanding of the concept.

The CRA approach is appropriate and applicable to all grade levels. It is not about the age of the student but rather the concept being taught. In 3rd grade, it is beneficial to students to have them use base 10 blocks to create an open-area model, then draw an open-area model, and finally use the multiplication algorithm. In algebra, it is STILL beneficial to practice using algebra tiles to multiply polynomials using an open-area model.

The CRA approach provides students P-12 to have multiple opportunities to explore concepts and make connections with prior concepts. Some teachers try to start teaching a concept at the abstract level, for example, the standard algorithm for multiplication. However, they soon find out that students have difficulty remembering the steps, don’t regroup, or don’t line up digits correctly. One of the main reasons is that students don’t understand this shortcut and they have not had the concrete & representational experiences to see how the shortcuts in the standard algorithm work.


‘Encouraging Discourse’

Danielle Ngo is a 3rd grade teacher and Lower School math coordinator at The Windward School. She has been a teacher for 10 years and works primarily with students who have language-based learning disabilities:

Growing up, so many of us were taught that there is one right answer to every math problem, and that there is one efficient way to arrive at that conclusion. The impetus to return to this framework when teaching math is a tempting one and one I’ve found myself having to fight actively against during my own classroom instruction. In my experience, the most effective way to counter this impulse is to mindfully increase the discourse present during my math lessons. Encouraging discourse benefits our students in several ways, all of which solidify crucial math concepts and sharpen higher-order thinking and reasoning skills:

Distributes math authority in the classroom: Allowing discourse between students—not just between the students and their teacher—establishes a classroom environment in which all contributions are respected and valued. Not only does this type of environment encourage students to advocate for themselves, to ask clarifying questions, and to assess their understanding of material, it also incentivizes students to actively engage in lessons by giving them agency and ownership over their knowledge. Learning becomes a collaborative effort, one in which each student can and should participate.

Promotes a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts: While the rote memorization of a process allows many students to pass their tests, this superficial grasp of math skills does not build a solid foundation for more complex concepts. Through the requisite explanation and justification of their thought processes, discourse pushes students to move beyond an understanding of math as a set of procedural tasks. Rather, rich classroom discussion gives students the freedom to explore the “why’s and how’s” of math—to engage with the concepts at hand, think critically about them, and connect new topics to previous knowledge. These connections allow students to develop a meaningful understanding of mathematical concepts and to use prior knowledge to solve unfamiliar problems.

Develops mathematical-language skills: Students internalize vocabulary words—both their definitions and correct usage—through repeated exposures to the words in meaningful contexts. Appropriately facilitated classroom discourse provides the perfect opportunity for students to practice using new vocabulary terms, as well as to restate definitions in their own words. Additionally, since many math concepts build on prior knowledge, classroom discussions allow students to revisit vocabulary words; use them in multiple, varied contexts; and thus keep the terms current.



Patrick Brown is the executive director of STEM and CTE for the Fort Zumwalt school district,in Missouri, an experienced educator, and a noted author:

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a sobering reminder that we are educating today’s students for a world that is increasingly complex and unpredictable. The sequence that we use in mathematics education can be pivotal in developing students’ understanding and ability to apply ideas to their lives.

An explore-before-explain mindset to mathematics teaching means situating learning in real-life situations and problems and using those circumstances as a context for learning. Explore-before-explain teaching is all about creating conceptual coherence for learners and students’ experiences must occur before explanations and practice-type activities.

Distance learning reaffirmed these ideas when I was faced with the challenge of teaching area and perimeter for the first-time to a 3rd grade learner. I quickly realized that rather than viewing area and perimeter as topics to be explained and then practiced, situating learning in problem-solving scenarios and using household items as manipulatives can illustrate ideas and derive the mathematical formulas and relationships.

Using Lego bricks, we quickly transformed equations and word problems into problem-solving situations that could be built. Student Lego constructions were used as evidence for comparing and contrasting physically how area and perimeter are similar and different as well as mathematical ways to calculate these concepts (e.g., students quickly learned by using Legos that perimeter is the distance around a shape while area is the total shape of an object). Thus, situating learning and having students use data as evidence for mathematical understanding have been critical for motivating and engaging students in distance learning environments.

Using an explore-before-explain sequence of mathematics instruction helps transform traditional mathematics lessons into activities that promote the development of deeper conceptual understanding and transfer learning.


A ‘Whiteboard Wall’

Andrea Clark is a grade 5-7 math and language arts teacher in Austin, Texas. She has a master’s in STEM education and has been teaching for over 10 years:

If you want to increase motivation, persistence, and participation in your math classroom, I recommend a whiteboard wall. Or some reusable dry erase flipcharts to hang on the wall. Or some dry erase paint. Anything to get your students standing up and working on math together on a nonpermanent surface.

The idea of using “vertical nonpermanent surfaces” in the math classroom comes from Peter Liljedahl’s work with the best conditions for encouraging and supporting problem-solving in the math classroom. He found that students who worked on whiteboards (nonpermanent surfaces) started writing much sooner than students who worked on paper. He also found that students who worked on whiteboards discussed more, participated more, and persisted for longer than students working on paper. Working on a vertical whiteboard (hung on the wall) increased all of these factors, even compared with working on horizontal whiteboards.

Adding additional whiteboard space for my students to write on the walls has changed my math classroom (I have a few moveable whiteboard walls covered in dry erase paint as well as one wall with large whiteboards from end to end). My students spent less time sitting down, more time collaborating, and more time doing high-quality math. They were more willing to take risks, even willing to erase everything they had done and start over if necessary. They were able to solve problems that were complex and challenging, covering the whiteboards with their thinking and drawing.

And my students loved it. They were excited to work together on the whiteboards. They were excited to come to math and work through difficult problems together. They moved around the room, talking to other groups and sharing ideas. The fact that the boards were on the wall meant that everyone could see what other groups were doing. I could see where every group was just by looking around the room. I could see who needed help and who needed more time to work through something. But my students could see everything, too. They could get ideas from classmates outside of their group, using others’ ideas to get them through a disagreement or a sticking point. It made formally presenting their ideas easier, too; everyone could just turn and look at the board of the students who were sharing.

I loved ending the math class with whiteboards covered in writing. It reminded me of all of the thinking and talking and collaborating that had just happened. And that was a good feeling at the end of the day. Use nonpermanent vertical surfaces and watch your math class come alive.


Thanks to Cindy, Danielle, Patrick, and Andrea for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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