Small Group Math Made Easy

math groups made easy

I’ve heard from a lot of teachers in our Facebook Community that the thought of running small group math is a bit overwhelming. We’ve had the pleasure of learning how Simone structures her math block in order to accommodate her math groups, so I thought I’d offer to share about the way that I run mine. The beauty of small group instruction is that it can look so many different ways–it just depends on what works for you and your students. And by that, I mean what makes you feel comfortable in terms of management and control.

I get it! Anything new can cause a lot of anxiety, and the thought of restructuring how you teach math is definitely daunting. I promise, it’s so worth it though! The level of individual attention I’m able to pay to my students has increased so much with this instructional model. I can literally see the improvements happening with my students as they are working with me in a small group, and it’s so exciting! And honestly, it’s very rewarding.

Let’s dive into the way I structure my math groups. I have from 9:15-10:15 to teach math, and everything flows in 15-minute increments. Hopefully this outline will give you the tools and confidence you need to give it a shot in your classroom.

Whole Group Instruction

I like to start all of my math group lessons with the whole class. As with other workshop models of instruction, the idea is to present the day’s objective to the whole group and then model the process. I spend our first 15 minutes on this (9:15-9:30).

Whole group time includes: 

  • An explanation of the day’s objective
  • 2-3 problems modeled by the teacher
  • 1-2 problems guided by the teacher, with input from students. 

After whole group time, students break into their leveled groups to begin their center time. I identify each group with a particular shape, and all center work will have a matching shape so students can easily see which tasks are designed for them to begin with when they are working independently.

How I determine student levels for math groups

Before I teach a new standard, I give my students a pre-assessment that includes three different leveled questions. These are included in my Math Groups Made Easy Bundles, along with a teacher resource guide that outlines how to interpret results, identify your next instructional steps, and group students based on the data. 

My student math groups include: 

Circle – These students will need the most support during the lesson. Resources marked with a circle will be the easiest. You’ll need to provide direct, explicit instruction in your small group, and perhaps even focus on reinforcing the foundation if those skills are lacking.

Square – These students will have a basic understanding of the concept, but will require support to move to a higher level of application. Resources marked with a square are moderate difficulty. 

Triangle – Students at this level will have a solid understanding of the skill and be able to apply it to challenging problems with little or no support. These resources will be the most difficult. 

Using shapes keeps everything nice and organized, and it keeps kids away from the stigma of being placed in the “low” group. Students know what they should be working on independently, and the teacher knows how to approach instruction for each group in order to move them through the standard.

Math Centers

In my classroom, students rotate through three math centers in 15-minute blocks of time: 

  1. Guided math with the teacher
  2. Independent math practice 
  3. Math games

The order of rotation is super important. Circle and square groups always go from guided math with me to independent practice. That way they get the support first and then move to apply it individually. 

The triangle group begins with independent practice because they are typically ready to go after the whole group lesson. I assign them word problems, then when they come to me, we review and I answer questions they may have. This rotation pattern seems to work well for my various levels of students. 

My rotation orders look like this: 

Circle group: Guided math with teacher, independent practice, math games. 

Square group: Math games, guided math with teacher, independent practice. 

Triangle group: Independent practice, math games, guided math with teacher.

Guided Math with the Teacher

This is where the real differentiation magic happens! When I work with each group, I get to dive deep and pinpoint where the struggles, misconceptions, and successes are. Each small group works on the day’s math objective with me. With my small groups, I can answer questions more directly than during whole group instruction and truly focus on the individual needs of each child. During this time, we are working on problems from the curriculum, but I also have mini-whiteboards out so students can show me their work as they are working through problems.

With my circle-level students, I support by providing direct, explicit instruction. We work together to achieve a basic level of understanding. Sometimes this means reviewing standards from prior grade levels. I meet them where they are and we move forward with baby steps. Square-level groups are encouraged to move beyond the basic understanding. I support them as they push to higher-level problems. This usually means that we work through a few of the basic problems in the curriculum, and then we attack word problems together. Triangle groups get support to solve the most difficult problems and move into higher levels of application. 

As I mentioned before, I think it’s a good idea to have your circle group begin with you first so you can provide that support right away. The whole group instruction will be fresh in their minds, and they won’t be left alone to struggle independently at the other centers. 

Independent Math Practice

At this center, students have math problems to complete independently. There may be task cards or other independent practice problems from their workbooks for them to work on. In my Math Groups Made Easy bundles, there are 30 task cards with a mix of circle, square, and triangle leveled questions. 

Students know to choose the tasks that match their group’s shape if they are working independently. They simply need to find the circle, square, or triangle. Students have the choice to work by themselves or with a partner at this time. 

Math Games

Yes, math can definitely be fun! There are all sorts of math games your students can play. The key here is to choose a game that is already familiar. I like to introduce my math games whole class at the start of each new unit. We play together and I let the students know that they will be seeing these games again throughout the unit at the games center.

You want students to be able to play independently, without taking you away from the group you’re working with. The goal is to reinforce the math concepts you are learning that day. 

At the end of math small group time, you should have a solid grasp on how well each student understands the day’s objective.

Resources for Math Groups

Because I know how hard it can be to change things up, I’ve developed a resource to help you tackle math groups. They are meant to compliment your math curriculum, and they are grouped by standard. My Math Groups Made Easy bundles include some key resources you need to get started: 

  • Pre-assessment
  • Task cards
  • Math games
  • Teacher guide to help you interpret results and plan instruction

I’m super excited to offer these math bundles. I know how much we all struggle with planning math instruction to truly differentiate for our individual kiddos – I think this could be the answer for many of us!

Tell me, what are your thoughts on using small groups during math time? Do you think these resource bundles can help?  

Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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