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3 Easy Steps to Make Small Group Math Instruction Work

It’s no secret that I love a good small group instruction! When it comes to math and literacy centers, I am all about that small group instruction because it really gives you a chance to differentiate for your students! Last week, I talked about how to make your small group literacy instruction dynamic. This, week it’s all about small group math instruction. Just like reading, we have skills that build on each other. Small group math instruction is great for focusing on specific skills students need.

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Why Use Small Group Math Instruction

Much like small group literacy instruction, small group math instruction allows you to engage in meaningful discussions, clear up confusion or misconceptions, and it helps build confidence! When you get into small groups, you can have more meaningful discussions with students about the content. During this time, you can teach students different strategies to help them understand the text even more.

In addition to having meaningful discussion, you can help clear up confusion or misconceptions. Sometimes clearing up a simple misunderstanding can really help turn the lightbulb on for students. Finally, and this is really the best part, having one-on-one discussion with students can help build confidence. Because students get to see everything up close and personal, they can get a better grasp on how to do a specific skill.

How to Make Small Group Math Instruction Possible

In order to make small group math instruction successful, you first have to start by having a framework for your centers that works. That means everyone in your classroom knows the rotation, the expectations, and how to do the activities in the independent centers. One of the great aspects of the Volume 1 and Volume 2 bundles that we have for kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade is the consistency of the activities. These are available as a hands-on or digital resource. While the skills change based on the standard you are teaching and the level you are on, the games look and work in a similar manner. This way students know exactly what they are doing. This allows you to have small group math instruction that is uninterrupted.  

If you need help getting your small groups up and running, make sure you check out my 3 Steps to Organizing Your Math and Literacy Centers Guide. You can grab your free resource at the end of the blog!

What Do You Teach in Small Math Groups?

Getting your students into small group math instruction is just the first step in having meaningful small groups. After you have students in groups, you have to decide what you are going to focus on during that time. While what you do might be different than what I do, here is the small group math instruction plan I follow to help my students be successful.

Start with the End in Mind

Once you have your centers up and running, you want to start planning what you’re going to teach in centers. I like to start with the end in mind. So, I look at the standard I will be teaching. Next, I go and look at the end of the unit assessment and take note of the vocabulary words and the methods students are going to need to know. If I have state assessments, I will check to make sure that my provided curriculum aligns with this vocabulary and methods. Then, if necessary, I will make some more adjustments.

Break It Down!

After I know everything I will need to focus on for that standard, I break up each standard into three different pieces.

  • Concrete: This is where I am modeling the focused skill using hands on manipulatives and allowing students to use the manipulatives or the digital math manipulatives to follow and along. This helps students work through problems and practice various skills.
  • Pictures: In this stage, students see pictures of the manipulatives and solve problems based on what they see. This may include some pencil work, but students can also verbalize their learning. If students simply verbalize it, I take notes in my teacher notebook.
  • Abstract: This is where the ultimate goal is met! My overall goal with small group math instruction is for students to be able to use numbers and symbols to solve problems. If students can do that, then we are winning!

By breading these down into three categories, I can differentiate my lessons based on what my students in each group need. I always move my students through all the stages, but how quickly a group moves through the stage is based on their needs. That’s why grouping students appropriately is so important! If you need help with grouping, check out this video!

What Does This Look Like?

I know you might be thinking, seems simple enough, but what does it look like in practice? If you have a skill like place value, you start by finding the standard for the grade level you’re teaching. For this example, let’s just say it’s a first grade standard that says: The student is expected to sue concrete and pictorial models to compose and decompose numbers up to 120 in more than one way as to so many hundreds, so many tens, and so many ones.

Interestingly enough, this standard ha two of our stages that we want to include verbatim!

After I’ve looked at this standard, I go to the end of unit assessment and I can see the ultimate goal is for the first grade student to be able to look at a number (the abstract) and determine how many hundreds, tens, and ones.

Introducing this Skill

To introduce this skill I want to focus on the concrete first. I would use base ten blocks and a work mat with popsicle sticks. Then I would model building groups of one, ten, and one hundred. I would then compose and decompose these numbers with students using their own mats and sticks to follow along and demonstrate their learning.  

Moving to the Picture Stage

Once I felt my students were ready, we would move onto the picture stage. In this stage, I like to keep manipulatives on hand in case students need to go back and use them. But the ultimate goal would be for my students to be able to look at a picture of base ten blocks, like five tens sticks and six one cubes, to understand that picture represents five tens and six ones. Then I may have my students draw the tens and ones one their paper or work mat to represent what they see.


This picture stage of small group math instruction helps students visualize the problem and gain a deeper understanding of the skill or strategy.

The Final Stage

While this standard doesn’t specify students being able to move to the abstract, it’s still the ultimate goal! So, if my group of students is ready, we move to just using the numbers and symbols. In this stage, students may order numbers, decompose numbers into expanded form or compose numbers from expanded to standard.


Using the concrete, picture, abstract method, I can meet my students where they are and differentiate in my small group math instruction. By doing so, I know I am building my students learning blocks so they can be more successful with every step.

No matter what standard you are teaching, they will all go through these three stages. In order to make my small group math instruction successful, I never skip a stage even if have a group of students who already understands the concrete. It never hurts to review it!

Keep Track of Small Group Math Instruction

While having all these aspects of small group math instruction is important, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t keep track! I also have my anecdotal notes handy during small group math instruction. In this notebook, I will write down notes based on what I am seeing when students are implementing strategies to solve problems. Maybe certain questions made them more frustrated while others seemed easy for them. You can see all of this in small group instruction which is just another reason it is so beneficial in your classroom.

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No matter what standard you are teaching, it’s important that your students can move easily through all the steps. Understanding is different than really knowing and you want your students to know. If they know, then they can carry the skills not only to the next standard, but to the next grade as well.

Until Next Time…

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