Not Sure How to Teach Guided Math? The Myths and Facts

Guided Math has been one of the trends in the last decade. It’s like as soon as these buzzwords arise, some districts are quick to want to shift immediately. But, like any new educational trend, we need to really evaluate whether or not the instructional strategy is the best fit for our students. In this blog post, we’ll bust some common myths around teaching Guided Math and providing practical activities to give your young learners the skills they need for success!

The Myths About Guided Math

Myth #1: You have to do Guided Math every day.

Let’s start with one of the biggest myths I have heard about guided math and it’s that you MUST use this structure for math every day.

I used to feel like I couldn’t possibly add one more thing to my plate (well, let’s be honest, I often feel that way). So, guided math felt like a lot of pressure. The truth is—I can do guided math. I have done guided math. I still do guided math. But I can’t commit to it every day. And so I don’t always teach math the same way. I….wait for it….change it based on the content and my students’ needs! I think they call this “responsive teaching”? *shrug* Whatever you call it, it’s flexible, differentiated, and engaging!

Myth #2: During guided math, you teach the same lesson to each small group.

This is NOT guided math and would not be a worthwhile use of anyone’s time. Teaching small groups makes it easier to differentiate! You DO want to make sure you have pre-assessed your students to know their current readiness/skill level. This can be formal or informal. I like to use a quick exit slip after our whole group lesson. Or, I jot down my observations as students are working independently on a math workbook page. This helps me set up my groups for the current skill.

Once you know your students’ abilities, you can strategically plan your lessons. They can look very similar and simply vary in challenge level. If you have a group that requires scaffolding of background information, you can use the time to bridge the gap. For example, if students are learning 3-digit addition, start by reviewing the steps for 2-digit addition.

Or, if a group has already mastered a skill, work on enrichment like creating your own word problems or using the skill in a real-world situation. For example, if students are working on money, this group might work on a grocery list and add up the total cost of items.

Myth #3: Guided math takes a lot of prep and materials.

This does not have to be true. You can keep guided math simple. The first step is to establish clear expectations and routines. One of your biggest hurdles in guided math success is making sure students know what they are doing and can stay on task independently. Practice together just as you do any other classroom routine. Review what to do if a student gets stuck. Establish procedures to minimize interruptions so you can maximize the time with your small groups.

As for materials, you can use whatever you have on hand! If I prep something for a whole group lesson or center, I often pull it to use in our small group. One of my #1 most used tools for guided math lessons are whiteboards and Expo markers. Sometimes, we don’t even use a whiteboard! Writing on the table really keeps things exciting!

The Truth about Guided Math

Fact #1: Guided Math is meant to be flexible

You don’t have to meet with every group every single day. In fact, you don’t even have to meet with groups every time you do guided math! That’s right! Some of my most important work is walking around, conferring with groups of students while they play a game, or completing a hands-on math activity.

My favorite part of the flexibility is being able to rearrange groups as needed. Since I start any new skill whole group, I am always evaluating students’ abilities. Then, I can adjust groups based on needs. You often have a student who struggles with subtraction but is strong with shapes. This flexibility is the ultimate tool to meet students where they are!

Fact #2: Every Guided Math lesson will look a little different.

You don’t need to teach something entirely different to every group! But, each small group will be unique. For example, during a unit on teaching how to tell time, your groups might look like this:

  • Group 1: Students start by labeling the minute and hour hands on the clock. They count by 5s the whole way around to review how many minutes each large number represents. Then, they practice showing time to the hour and half-hour.
  • Group 2: This group also practices counting by 5s around the clock. Next, they review vocabulary such as “quarter-til” and “half-past.” Then, they practice time to the half-hour and quarter-hour. Finally, they work on elapsed time in intervals of 1-hour and 1/2 hour.
  • Group 3: The third group starts with a vocabulary review and dives into quarter-hour and time to the nearest 5 minutes. This group also works on elapsed time in chunks of 1 hour, a half-hour, and 15 minutes.
  • Group 4: For students who have mastered time to the nearest 5 minutes, they practice times to the nearest minute. For elapsed time practice, they can work on identifying how much time has elapsed between two given times and showing a starting time when given an ending time and elapsed time.

Want more tips and tricks for teaching how to tell time? Check out this blog post!

Fact #3: Guided Math can be as simple or complex as you make it.

I would always recommend: start simple. Use what students are already familiar with or make sure to explicitly teach expectations for what students will be working on while you meet with groups.

addition tic tac toe
Addition Tic Tac Toe is one of my go-to games for students to play during guided math time

Use the same types of games over and over with different skills so there are no questions about what to do. Incorporate your school’s math workbook pages as independent work. You do not have to reinvent the wheel and make sure every activity is aligned to the current skill. Reviewing and spiraling material is essential for students to retain information!

One of my non-negotiables during math block is fact fluency practice. No matter if the lesson is whole group, or in small groups, my students are receiving daily practice on their math facts. Read about some of the ways we find in math fact practice.

Navigating the changing landscape of educational standards and expectations is no small feat, but it’s an important part of helping our students succeed. As teachers, understanding how to effectively implement best teaching practices can help ensure that every student develops a strong foundation for their future learning journey. Need editable slides to help organize your guided math groups? Check these out!

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