Everything You Need to Know About Guided Math Groups
Get ready to learn everything you’ve ever needed to know about guided math groups.
…and maybe even a little bit more than that. 🙃
I believe that math workshop is guided math is THE best way to teach math for upper elementary students. And guided math is a huge part of that. How you facilitate guided math groups will be a huge factor in your success with math workshop, and guided math. I’m hoping this comprehensive guide will help you with that!
Before I delve into the nitty gritty with guided math groups, we need to know what guided math is. So let’s start there.
What is Guided Math?
Table of Contents
Before I dive deeper into the setup, organization, and theory behind guided math groups, let’s first ensure that we understand what guided math is.
Guided math is a whole framework and way of thinking when it comes to teaching math.
The idea behind it actually informed the reason I chose the blog name Math With Minis, since guided math includes the use of daily mini math lessons.
I’ve said before that math centers can be incredibly effective for teaching foundational math skills to students. However, this is ONLY if they’re properly planned, intentionally designed, and organized well.
Guided math takes the use of math centers, and strategically places them into an entire system for math learning – which meets students where they’re at, while encouraging them to be more independent learners.
To summarize, guided math is a systematic way of teaching math that includes engaging mini-lessons, explicit direct instruction, and intentional centers with small groups.
How to Plan for Guided Math Groups
Before setting up any of your centers, station activities or guided math groups, you need to do a fair amount of preparation and planning.
First, you’ll want to decide on to the skills and standards you’re focusing on each week. It’s important to note that there will be opportunities for differentiation at the teacher table, and at each station for the guided math groups. However, guided math typically starts with a whole group mini-lesson, which you’ll want to prepare in advance.
If you’re teaching 3×1 digit multiplication, for example, you’ll walk through a problem or two during the mini-lesson. Then, you’ll plan for opportunities for students to work through problems with a partner, or in a group.
Rotation and Station Ideas for Guided Math Groups
I could do a whole blog post or podcast episode alone on different ideas for stations, rotations, and centers when it comes to guided math groups
At each center, you’ll want provide different ways for students to work through this type of problem. I’ve tried so many ideas for centers over time, and these have been the most popular and effective.
Here are a few examples:
- Tech Time/Computer Station: You might want to include some 3×1 multiplication practice problems on digital worksheets with Google Sheets. Prodigy works very well for Tech Time guided math groups, since you can set the particular skill or standard that you want for your students to practice. If you haven’t used Prodigy before, click here to get started. It’s fun, easy, and FREE for students.
- Desk Work/Seat Work: Students can work on printable practice worksheets, interactive notebooks, or an ongoing solo multiplication project.
- Manipulation Station: Since multiplication math fact fluency is a foundational skill that needs to be mastered and revisited for 3×1 multiplication, students can practice their math facts while building their conceptual understanding of multiplication with manipulatives.
- Creation Station: This is an awesome opportunity to foster students’ creativity and do interdisciplinary instruction! And, it makes math a lot more fun – especially for students who usually struggle with it. Think out of the box here by finding ways students can create and craft to represent math problems, and answers to math problems.
- Active Practice: This station provides a way for students to learn the material kinesthetically, and students always love an opportunity to get moving. Think creatively – are there ways students can express numbers, problems, or answers to problems with their actions? This would also be a great place for group games.
- Teacher Time: Teacher Time is designated time students get with you as their teacher. This time is invaluable, because it allows you to foster mini-lessons specifically for individual students in your guided math groups. We’ll cover more about how to group students in a minute – but the most important thing to know about Teacher Time, or the Teacher Table (as some call it), is that you can meet students where they’re at. Think of it as in-class intervention, or tutoring that you can do, based on the data you have on those individuals – or from that group.
How to Sort Students Into Guided Math Groups
There’s been many a hot debate over how teachers should sort students into groups. And this doesn’t stop when it comes to guided math groups.
(In fact, this is another topic I happen to be pretty passionate about – haha. Maybe it’ll merit another, separate post about grouping down the line)
One way to do this is by ability grouping. Ability grouping is when you sort students into groups according to their demonstrated ability, or by their academic needs, when it comes to certain math standards and skills.
In my opinion and experience, the best way to do this is ensuring that your groups are fluid.
Students shouldn’t be able to say things like “These kids are in the low group,” “That’s the group for smart students,” “those are the kids who are good at math,” and so on.
As annoying as it can be to rearrange groups constantly, it truly is the best practice when it comes to ability grouping. This is because you’re looking at mastery for each individual standard or skill, vs. judging a student’s ability as a whole.
A student may not know their math facts yet – but that doesn’t mean they won’t get them eventually.
Just because a student doesn’t know their math facts yet, doesn’t mean they won’t get there eventually.Tweet
This also shows students who usually perform well academically, that there may come a time when they need some extra support with a certain standard or skill. And that it’s completely OK when that day comes – because we all need a little more help sometimes.
Another way to group students for guided math groups is through behavioral grouping.
In my humble opinion, I think it’s best to group students by their proficiency with whatever standards or skills you’re covering for that week.
But, I get it. Sometimes, there are students who just can NOT work together – or, students who you don’t want to work together (because they’ll drive you mad if they do).
Demonstrated maturity and energy levels are other considerations, but I think it’s important to note what you can expect should you decide to sort your groups in this way.
At certain stations, you might have a student who’s feeling frustrated – because the rest of the group “gets it,” and they don’t. Or oppositely, one student may be a bit more academically advanced than a lesson allowed, which makes them bored.
Both are bad.
Kids who are bored or stressed out, will act out.
That means they’ll get in trouble, you’ll get angry, and they won’t get the academic help or differentiated support that they absolutely need.
Of course, the choice is always up to you as the teacher. But if you were a newer teacher at my school asking me about guided math groups, it wouldn’t even be a question. Fluid, open ability grouping is the way to go.
How to Implement Guided Math Groups
There are essentially four steps to implementing guided math groups in your classroom. I’ll do a brief outline here, then we’ll dig a bit deeper into each step further down this post.
Note that I’m separating this out from ‘preparing,’ because preparation is something you’ll do a bit of each day. For this planning, I’m talking about a strategic, bird’s eye view of how your guided math groups are going to go.
You’ll probably want to revisit HOW you do your guided math groups at least once a quarter, if not twice. The key to success with guided math groups is giving yourself many opportunities to assess what’s working, what’s not, and how you can make things better for you and your students.
This is what you’ll do a bit of on a weekly and daily basis.
When you’re first getting started, guided math groups can take a lot of work to prepare and setup. You’ll want to get organized. This is when you get your binder ready, sort your kids into their daily/weekly groups, prep for your whole group mini-lesson, decide on the specific activities for each station, and ready any necessary materials.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save your time with this.
(I might seem like a hard worker, but I’m actually a master slacker. I am so good at making things more efficient – because I am secretly lazy. 😂 Welcome, grasshopper! 🦗)
UGH. The worst part, right?!
I am not a naturally organized person. This is something I’ve had to intentionally work at improving in myself. And you know what? Practice makes permanent.
So if you’re also a bit naturally disorganized, don’t freak out and lose hope for you.
There’s definitely a way to organize everything for your math centers without driving yourself crazy. I’m here to show you what I’ve learned!
- Direct Instruction.
This is when you start them on that path toward the gradual release of responsibility. You lead a memorable and engaging mini-lesson that allows them to learn and practice the standard of the day, right away.
Keep in mind that you’ll be saving the “I Do” part of this process mainly for the work they’re doing in each group.
- Rotation Facilitation.
The first few times you do this, just ready yourself for a behavioral management nightmare. Then, when if/when it goes smoothly right away, you can be delighted and pleasantly surprised.
Guided math groups thrive on constant routines and procedures. For the first few runs, allow for a bit of extra time as students practice transitioning between rotation stations, as well as just working independently.
- Small Group Teaching.
This is what really puts many teachers off who are newer to groups. On top of teaching whole-group and facilitating the station transitions, you’re also doing small group teaching and/or tutoring at the teacher table.
It can definitely feel like a lot when you’re first getting started, but it’s like that for anything, isn’t it? 😊
Spending some extra time in the planning and preparation stages will really help you feel calm and confident when it comes time to run your groups. But in general, I think expectation management is super important.
Be ready for it to be the ‘hot mess express’ in your classroom for a while. If you can go in with a sense of humor, and an acknowledgement that it might be a bit messy for a while, you’ll mentally prepare yourself better for if and when things go wrong.
When done well, assessment can be extremely telling. This will help you to determine which skills and standards have been mastered, and which you’ll need to cover again.
Note that, when I say ‘assessment,’ I don’t mean a long chapter test for each concept.
This includes both summative assessment (those long unit-ending tests), and formative assessment. And this is something that you’re constantly doing by observing, teaching, and interacting with students in their guided math groups.
- Data Analysis and Decision-Making.
I know – the “D” word. Data. BLEGH. I get it.
But here’s the deal – data is important.
I think data gets a bad rap from millions of teachers everywhere due to how it’s been used to evaluate teachers, fund (or defund) schools, and basically just disenfranchise people everywhere.
If used and interpreted correctly, though, data can help out a lot.
Whenever you see a kid not getting a concept, and when you come to an understanding of specifically why they’re not getting, that’s good data.
You can use that information to improve your instruction.
And guided math groups give you SO many opportunities for valid, rich data.
How to Plan for Guided Math Groups
Planning for these groups can be an absolute beast.
This is one of the reasons why I create resources for math centers, math workshops, and guided math groups – because SO MUCH can go into it when you’re first getting started.
If you’re absolutely brand new to all this, or if you’re looking to revamp and organize your math groups, then you’ll love my Planning Guide for Guided Math Groups. You can get this comprehensive guide and video training from my TeachersPayTeachers store for $17.
You’ll definitely want to designate a binder specifically to your Guided Math Groups time.
The guide above goes further into this – but at minimum, you’ll want to have one section per quarter, as well as smaller subsections for each essential standard and skill you plan to cover.
I also recommend setting up an accordion file, and giving each student a designated space within it. This will give a place for their turned in work to ‘live,’ and it will keep you sane during data analysis and grading time.
Prep for Guided Math Groups
Do you all actually get a prep period at your school? I so hope that you do. Setting aside time for planning centers can be hard enough – but if you don’t allot time to prepare each day or week, it’s next to impossible.
Here’s my overall workflow when I’m prepping for groups:
- Print off any needed copies of worksheets, task cards, or project instructions
- Disinfect any shared stations or materials (also done quickly between rotations)
- Review groups, and make changes for that day if necessary
- Take out kits or manipulatives for use in centers
- Load websites on computers or laptops to save time
- Write instructions on station white boards and/or sheet protector pages, and/or on laminated pages (however you decide to do it)
- Prepare slides to show students the groups they’re in, and where they’re going
- Print any needed materials for whole-group mini-lesson
- Print any needed materials for small-group teacher time
Of course, the first time you run guided math groups, there are going to be additional steps as you figure everything out.
I’m a big fan of, “just do it and see what happens” – so a lot of what I’ve learned is trial by fire, error, and adjustment.
And since I teach upper elementary students, I have no problems putting them to work in math center facilitation, setup, and breakdown. In fact, involving them in the process helps to create buy-in, which makes classroom management a whole lot easier for you.
Feel free to jot some of these tips down to save yourself some pain. 😅
Math Center Organization
In doing my research and prep for this blog post, I found it interesting that math center organization was the most searched term on Google and Pinterest, when it comes to setting up guided math groups.
And it’s easy to understand why.
Since planning, prep, and organization are so critical for the success of guided math, teachers want to ensure they get it right (and also, many teachers just hate organizing – it’s like, someone PLEASE come do this step for me??).
As I mentioned before, I’m not a naturally organized person, so this is a step in the process I’ve really had to work at.
But I will say certain tools have things a lot easier.
Here are some organizational items, tools and supplied that I use in my classroom to assist with group management. I have a rather obvious affinity for bright, bold and obnoxious colors in my classroom – but the items below usually come in other colors, too. 🤗
*Affiliate disclaimer: I am a partner with the Amazon affiliate program. Should you choose to make a purchase on Amazon below using any of my links, I will receive a small commission of the total sale, at no extra cost to you.
Out of all of the steps included in planning, preparing for, and facilitating guided math groups, I believe that the direct instruction whole-group piece might actually be the easiest part.
You can do this in a low-tech way, too. I’ve taught directly with nothing else but a printed worksheet.
The most important for the direct instruction piece of guided math, is ensuring that you have embedded a gradual release of responsibility.
You should do 1-2 problems where students do nothing but watch and listen. Be sure to model how one should talk about math. Talk through your thinking, and normalize making mistakes as you solve through the problems.
Then, give students a chance to respond as you solve. This is a great opportunity to assess for math fact fluency, and for them to practice recalling their math facts.
Depending on how they’re doing, lead 1-2 more problems that have students either solving them with the class, and/or in partners.
Once your mini-lesson is over, and/or once you’re ready for groups to start, you’ll dismiss them to their centers and stations.
You’re truly only facilitating these station rotations when you’re first starting out. Once students understand your routines and procedures, it will get much easier, quicker, and more automatic for your students.
To ease transitions, you can project the student groups and schedules up on the boards, and click it once it’s time to transition. Or, embed a timer into the slides, so that the slides advance automatically once it’s time to switch.
If you don’t want to set that up, you could assign a student to advance the slides once you’re ready.
Small Group Teaching
This part of Guided Math really ties in well with assessment – because based on the whole-group mini-lesson, you might create a lesson plan specifically for certain groups. Or, you might have pre-planned a lesson for a skill you intend to help them with.
For example, if you have a group who was able to master 3×1 multiplication fairly quickly, this could be your chance to pre-teach 4×1 multiplication.
If another group is still struggling with their 7s, 8s and 9s when it comes to their multiplication math facts, then you could them practice their facts with flash cards or dice games.
This is also a wonderful time for you to connect and get to know your students on a deeper level, so take advantage of that!
Connecting with them and building those relationships will not only help them but you’ll find that they’re willing to go the extra mile for you when it comes to learning motivation.
As mentioned above, assessment is a constant process of observing your students, seeing whether or not they’re getting it, and making adjustments in real time. Of course, there are times for summative assessments too, but guided math groups are all about a constant feedback loop that allows for almost immediate adjustment.
You could even use their work during the whole group mini-lesson as a pre assessment, and offer a more formalized summative assessment afterwards.
Data Analysis & Decision-Making
And from there, you start to make some decisions.
Do students need to move to other groups? Have a majority of your students achieved mastery? Do your students know their math facts? If not, which ones are they still struggling with?
True, valid, relevant data can be so helpful when planning instruction. If you can teach your students to analyze and interpret the data themselves, you create another opportunity for applied math and authentic learning.
Resources for Groups and Math Centers
No matter where you are with guided math groups, I have resources for you.
If you’re just getting started with guided math, then I highly recommend that you download my Planning Guide for Guided Math Groups.
If you’re good on the overall strategy of how you’re going to run and organize your groups, then you might need center activities and/or practice worksheets.
If you’d like to save a bit of time with your students’ math fact fluency when it comes to 0s, check out this freebie I have for you.
That bundle, combined with your free 0s math maze, would have you set on math mazes for an entire week.
You could use them for seat work, as a race for students doing a partner center, or as part of your tech station/laptop activity, since each product comes with a digital version for Google Slides.
Mastering Foundational Skills is the First Step to Fluency
There’s so much to math fluency, that it could really be it’s own series of podcast epsiodes and blog posts.
And there’s definitely more to math fluency than memorizing math facts.
But knowing your math facts by heart is a great place to start.
One big attributing factor to developing math fluency is automaticity.
In math, automaticity is the ability to automatically recall the answer (when it comes to facts), or to be able to compute something with speed to the point where it’s near automatic.
For the past several years, many mathematicians and math educators have criticized the development of speed and automaticity when it comes to computation and problem-solving.
But the fact of the matter is, if you remember facts quickly, it takes less time to solve problems.
If math stresses you out, the LAST thing you want to do is spend hours working on one problem. You want to get it done quickly, and be done with it.
And, ironically, the faster and easier math gets for you, the less you tend to hate it.
So, yes – I am all about helping students increase their speed when it comes to math fact recall and problem-solving.
Do I penalize students for not being quick? No.
But do I encourage and teach them to think more quickly? Absolutely.
What Are Foundational, Basic Math Skills?
Why, I thought you’d never ask (hehe). 😃
I’ve already mentioned this a bit throughout the article – but essentially, when I’m talking about foundational math skills, I’m talking about:
- Counting to 100
- Understanding of place value
- Knowing addition and subtraction families through 20 by heart
- Having the times table memorizes through 12s
From that list alone, it’s easy to see why I’m so passionate about math facts, and why I think students need to memorize their math facts.
If students don’t know their addition and subtraction facts through 20, it will be incredibly difficult to add and subtract with multiple digits later.
If students cannot multiply and divide numbers with fluency through their 12a on the times table, it’s going to be very difficult for them to do multi-digit multiplication and long division.
Of course students need to be able to count.
And yes, they definitely need to have a solid, conceptual understanding of place value.
But still, students need to memorize their math facts.
It just makes so many other tasks and skills easier for them down the road.
Thankfully, helping students attain math fluency and memorize their math facts gets easier with explicit instruction, intentional math centers, and consistent review.
How to Help Students Achieve Math Fluency
All of these list items could be blog posts within themselves. But basically, there’s a simple cycle I always use when teaching math facts to my students.
- Explicit Instruction
I directly teach them the times table for a particular number, and I stay on that theme for a week. Students are learning new things CONSTANTLY – which means they’re forgetting a ton. I believe we need to “slow down to speed up” – meaning, focus on one times table at a time, so they actually get a chance to master it.
During my direct teaching, I typically follow this instructional model, known as the gradual release of responsibility (with a bit of inquiry-based learning practices mixed in):
– Create curiosity, test prior knowledge, build background with a tester problem (THEY DO).
– Walk class through a few example problems, explaining my reasoning as I go (I DO).
– Guide class through a few problems – doing less, and having them do more (WE DO).
– Give students a few problems to try with a partner. I walk around to assist (WE DO).
– I look for any misconceptions, and guide students if necessary. I ask students to explain through their reasonings for answers, and I encourage use of the mathematical practices encouraged by Common Core (which I also LOVE). (I DO)
– Finally, I release students based on perceived ability to work independently (THEY DO ALONE).
- Intentional Math Centers
When used well, I believe math centers are the BEST way to reinforce skills in a way that allows for student voice and choice.
Perhaps more importantly, they allow for students to practice recalling the information – while interacting with the concepts in different ways.
If setup well, they even provide opportunities for students to TALK about math, and to EXPLAIN their inner procedures and reasoning – which is just gold.
They’re not only practicing math skills – they’re developing their ability to reason, argue respectfully, think critically, and collaborate. Math centers are incredible tools when done well.
- Consistent Review
As I mentioned before, we’re not meant to just learn, churn and return to information – especially not if we’re getting a ton thrown at us.
We need to learn in chunks.
This is why I teach one times table at a time, and why I take my time with concepts. I want to ensure students truly get what they’re learning. I want what they’re learning to be meaningful and relevant to them – which, in turn, helps them to use those skills more fluently and quickly.
There are so many ways to build consistent review into your day. You’re likely already using one, if not several, of these tactics:
– Bell Work (a.k.a. Morning Work or Bell Ringers)
– Pop-Up Solve & Shares
– Exit Tickets
– Mystery Math Problem
– Gallery Walks
– Math Raffle
No matter what you use, be sure to build in opportunities for students to review what they have already learned. Otherwise, they’ll just be pouring more into a bucket – while leaking what’s already in there out a proverbial bottomless pit!
My Conclusion: Students Need to Memorize Their Math Facts
Can you tell yet just how passionate I am about this?! haha
But, yeah – no doubt about it. Students absolutely need to memorize their math facts.
It’s one of the first stepping stones to math fluency, and it makes teaching (and learning!) everything else WAY easier.
Your Next Steps
So, what do you think?
Did I convince you that students need to memorize their math facts? Or do you feel differently?
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Other Posts You Might Like
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