3 Characteristics of an Effective Math Strategy

Have you ever taught a math strategy to your students that was recommended by another teacher, but the strategy didn’t work for your students? Did you wonder why it worked so well for the other teacher and their students and not yours?

Knowing which math strategies to use for different math concepts can be an uphill battle for some teachers. Teachers who don’t have a strong math content knowledge will often struggle with choosing effective math strategies for their lessons.

The math strategies that you choose can make or break you when it comes to closing achievement gaps. So, to help you determine if a strategy is worth teaching to your students there are three main characteristics that you should consider before choosing a strategy for your students.

Supports the Vertical Alignment

The vertical alignment is one of the most overlooked aspects of choosing an instructional strategy. In the Teacher Facebook Groups, I often see teachers asking how to teach this or that. Then sometimes they’ll ask what’s a “fun” activity for a particular math concept or skill.

An effective math instructional strategy will first and foremost support the vertical alignment for that particular concept. What this looks like is a teacher who is looking for an instructional strategy for adding fractions should first identify at what grade level fraction concepts are first taught. Then follow the progression of the fraction concepts at each grade level up to the respective grade level.

Any math instructional strategy that you choose to teach a concept should use instructional strategies in the vertical alignment from previous grade levels as anchors to teach the math concepts for your grade level.

Connecting Math Concepts

For the most part I enjoy teaching students who struggle with math, but the most frustrating part about this work is the lack of coherence of skills from grade level to grade level. For example, when my ninth graders struggled with slope, I noticed they didn’t have a concrete understanding of slope.

For most of the students, slope means just rise over run and only rise over run. This is partially true but there’s more to slope than the rise over run. The rise over run is actually a ratio that’s in fraction form that compares the change on the y-axis vs. the change on the x-axis. Ratios are taught in sixth grade, but what I’ve noticed with many secondary math teachers is they fail to choose an instructional strategy that makes the slope connection to ratios.

Using math instructional strategies that connect math concepts from previous grade levels helps students who struggle with math to see the skills that they are learning as building blocks that are connected. When you choose a math strategy that doesn’t connect the prerequisite skills to the grade level student expectation, the message you send to the students is what they learned in the other grade level isn’t important.

Slope of a line content chart for high school

Appropriate for ALL Learners

The last but most important characteristic of an effective math instructional strategy is it should support all of your learners.

When I taught fifth-grade, seventy percent of my students were either Tier 2 or Tier 3 students; when I decided on an instructional strategy I knew that it had to be appropriate for all of the students in my classroom. That’s not to say that all of the students were going to understand the concept the first time it was taught. 

Choosing a strategy that’s appropriate for all of your students gives the students a higher probability of success with the math concept in small group instruction. Contrary to what many teachers believe, you don’t have to start over with a completely new instructional strategy in your small group. 

Doing something different means to tweak the strategy that you’ve chosen to use in the whole group for your small group instruction. This will not be an option if you haven’t chosen a strategy that your struggling math students can use to learn the math concept with Tier 2 or Tier 3 math intervention support.

The backbones of your success with your students is your math instructional strategies not your math activities. If your students have the potential but aren’t making the necessary gains, you might want to re-evaluate how you choose the instructional strategies that you’re using to teach certain math concepts.

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