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Primary Math Problems: Solutions for Helping Kids Conquer Common Math Challenges

Math can be a challenge for students once it gets past the fluency stage and into the conceptual stage. Why is it that even our kids who are quick to learn math facts still struggle with solving math problems? Even with lots of practice, some of our primary students shut down when it comes to higher level mathematical thinking.

I’ve got great news, teachers! There are plenty of great ways to help kids understand the problem solving process, and once you keep a few things in mind, you’ll have the tools to help your students find problem solving success!

I feel so much satisfaction watching kids make sense of concepts and feel successful! That feeling is definitely worth taking some extra time to make their learning “stick.” A few shifts in your practice in the classroom will help your students feel their accomplishment. It’s the best when they can take part in creating their understanding, instead of just being told what to do.

The key to helping kids find that spark is in the application. Math facts and fluency are important, but in the end, true learning comes from the way our students independently organize, think about, and work through problems.

Why Students Struggle With Math Problems

First, let's identify some of the main struggles kids face when attempting to solve math problems, and the solutions to overcome them.

1. Math problems are often far from being meaningful. NO ONE buys 57 watermelons ever, do they??
  • For kids to conceptualize problems, we have to make them more realistic. We have to get away from focusing just on the numbers and focus on the processes by giving them relevant problems they care about. You know your kids. Use what is interesting and even culturally relevant to them. Use their language and ideas, and integrate them with math vocabulary to create relevant and engaging problems they actually want to solve.

2. Kids often struggle with multi-step problems. Usually this is because they’ve never mastered one-step problems.
  • Teach one step at a time. Why rush it? Practice understanding the problem and then move on to making a plan to solve it. All the parts of problem solving depend on mastering the step before it. Take it slow and really cement that understanding what the problem is telling you first before applying the next step.

3. Kids with language or reading difficulties feel overwhelmed. How can we expect struggling readers to be good at problem solving if they can't read or understand the problem?
  • Teaching kids to recognize and understand keywords and mathematical vocabulary has to come before they understand what to do with it. There are lots of center and whole group activities to help with this. You can also access this free math poster to display and give your students access to important key words.

4 Steps to Successfully Teach Problem Solving

Once you’ve addressed those roadblocks, you can focus on these 4 steps for teaching problem solving:
  • Understand the problem
  • Make a plan
  • Solve the problem
  • Check your solution
Remember: Try teaching one step at a time. No need to solve a problem right away. Practice understanding problems and then move on to making plans. No need to teach all the steps at once if that's overwhelming your students.

Understand the problem

  • Practice reading the problem more than once.
  • Ask questions to check for understanding.
  • Highlight important information & cross out what isn't needed.
  • Have them turn to their elbow buddy and explain the problem in their own words.
  • Make sure it is clear what we are looking for (the question that needs to be answered)

Make a plan

  • Look for keywords in the problem. Display my free math poster {freebie} in your classroom for quick reference.
  • Use different strategies with your students such as acting out the problem, making a model, drawing a chart, etc...
  • Use different strategies on paper such as number lines, ten frames, number bonds, etc...

Solving the problem

Don’t let your students write the answer and forget about the rest. They often skip the "show your work" part because "if I know the answer, who cares about the rest??".

Practice this by having kids only solve the problem using the chosen strategy but not writing the answer. For example, in primary grades, we often draw a picture to solve problems. Practice a few problems by demonstrating the picture and not writing the answer. After a few lessons, incorporate the answer by adding an equation to your solution.

Check your solution

My favorite way to get kids to check their answer is by using a second strategy to solve the problem. For example, if they drew a picture to add 5 owls and 4 falcons, have them then use a number line to see if they get the same answer.

Comparing their answer with a friend is another strategy. Talk is an important part of math!

No-Prep Resources to Teach Problem Solving

Looking for some no-prep resources to guide your math instruction? Check out these two links here, and here for problem-solving resources. If your students are distance learning, they can use this Google Slides resource from my TPT store.

Do you have some tips to share on what math problem solving looks like in your class? Do you have some challenges in this department that we can help with? Head over to my Facebook and Instagram pages and share with our community.

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Effective Strategies for Teaching Sight Words to Primary Students

The ability to recognize high-frequency sight words is one of the most important indicators of reading success for young learners. Help your students develop awesome reading skills with these tips for effectively teaching sight words to primary students.

What Are Sight Words

Sight words are high-frequency words, meaning that they are some of the most commonly used words in a language. A major goal for kindergarten is to teach our students to memorize sight words so they can recognize them—you guessed it—on sight!

You can find several different lists of common sight words. Some of the most regularly used lists include the Fry Sight Words and the Dolch Sight Words lists. The Dolch list includes an estimated 80% of the words you would see in a typical children’s book and 50% that you would find in writing for adults.

The Fry list includes 1000 of the most frequently used words in English, with a list of 100 words for each grade level, 1-10.

Why Teach Sight Words to Kindergarteners

Why would we include memorized sight words as part of a phonics curriculum. Well, the fact of the matter is that many of our high-frequency sight words in English don’t play by our phonics rules.

Words like come, does, do, the, and said, aren’t easily decodable, and yet they are everywhere in day-to-day language. If kids can recognize several sight words on a page, they are able to read at least half the text. This not only helps them decode the other words based on context clues, but it helps them feel success with reading.

When our little learners are able to recognize such frequent words on sight, they gain so much confidence! With regular practice, they’ll be sight word masters in no time!

Ways to Teach Sight Words Effectively

The most important tip I can give you is to vary your sight word instruction as much as possible! Every child learns differently, and what works for one may not work at all for another. You’ll want to use different strategies to accommodate the different learning styles your students may have:
  • Visual
  • Musical/Auditory
  • Kinesthetic/Physical
  • Verbal
  • Logical/Mathematical
  • Social
  • Solitary

Here are some of my favorite ways to teach sight words to my primary students:

Play Sight Word Games

Every child loves to play games! From apps to dice games to concentration, there are so many options for teaching sight words with games. This one is my favorite:

Students partner up with a stack of sight word cards. There’s a mix of sight words and picture cards. They take turns choosing a card from the deck—if they can read it, great! If they choose a picture, they have to put all of their cards back in the pile. That way, the game never ends! Students can play this in a learning center or as an activity for early finishers. You can create your own, or grab this set: it includes 284 words from the Dolch pre-primer, primer, and first grade lists.

Sneak Sight Words Into the Background

It’s not exactly subliminal messaging, but kind of! I like to turn my computer screensaver into a slideshow of our sight words. That way, kids read them when they pass by. Some of my little learners get so excited when they see one they recognize! Another fun idea: attach a sight word to your lanyard and keep it front and center all day long!

Of course, another way to make your sight words seen is to create a bright and engaging word wall. The more often children see these words in different contexts, the better success they will have.

Practice Writing Sight Words

Sure, it’s important to practice printing sight words with a pencil, but there are so many other fun and creative ways to practice printing! Build sight words with magnetic letters, Wikki Stix, pipe cleaners, or blocks. Ask students to trace letters in sand, shaving cream, or in play-dough. Kinesthetic learners especially love to get their hands dirty while building their sight words!

Pencil work is important too! Early learners can benefit from first tracing letters and then working their way up to writing them independently.

Hunt for Sight Words in Print

Once my students have had some practice with a set of sight words, I like to encourage them to hunt for their word “in the wild.” I’ll give them a short poem or small passage from a story and ask them to point out the sight words they recognize.

My most enthusiastic learners are eager to tell me about the sight words they found on their cereal box, their bedtime story, or the credits of their morning cartoon.

Get Them Moving With Sight Words

We do plenty of movement-based sight word activities in the classroom, but these are some of my favorites to send home. Parents are always looking for productive ways to run down some energy, after all!

I like to provide my parents with flash cards and a variety of easy no-prep game ideas. Some examples include:
  • Line the stairs with flashcards and read them while walking up and down.
  • Arrange cards on the floor and have kids swat the word with a fly swatter as you call them out.
  • Shine a flashlight on the correct card as you call out words.
  • Write words in the air using big gestures.
For more ideas, download this free list of my favorite Sight Word Games at Home.

Create Sentences With Sight Words

Finally, be sure to practice creating sentences with sight words. It’s great to recognize the words on their own, but young readers need to understand them in context as well. That’s what it’s all about, right? Of course it will take time to build up to writing complete sentences on their own, but we can start early by helping them create sentences both on paper and with manipulatives like word blocks.

Sight word practice pages are perfect for this! <Find them HERE>

The Key to Teaching Sight Words is Repetition

Repeat, repeat, repeat! This biggest mistake I see is when teachers or parents focus on one word per week and then just move on. Keep recycling those words, bringing them up over and over again. Repeated exposure will help make those words stick. My best advice is to give students plenty of opportunities to not only see their sight words, but to also stop and recognize them. Remember to pause and identify sight words in your math problems, on their crayon boxes, or in the morning announcements.

With plenty of repetition and practice, your young learners will become confident readers in no time!

For a full pack of Dolch sight word lists plus a variety of activity ideas, grab this Sight Words Task Card set—you’ll never run out of ideas again!

How Do You Teach Sight Words?

I’d love to hear your favorite ways to teach sight words! Come on over to Instagram to join the conversation!

Your Quick Links:

Click on the images to go straight to the resources mentioned in this post.

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My Favorite Coding Apps for Kids

Coding can seem like an unconventional way to approach learning for teachers who don’t have a ton of experience with computer sciences. And often we think about teaching coding and programming just to the older kids. But the truth is, coding is appropriate for all school-aged children. And there are some super resources out there to get you started!

Why teach coding at such a young age?

Coding skills prepare our kids for the future in ways that traditional literacy and curriculum can’t. These skills also hit those high order thinking concepts that will help kids with logical, step-by-step, problem solving skills. We want to encourage these abilities in all of our kiddos.

We also want to give our students access to learning that will prepare them for a successful future. With the increase in technology in every industry, coding skills are not only relevant but will be more and more necessary.

You may be thinking, But Valerie, aren’t our primary students just a little too young for this kind of computation and analogous thinking?

NOPE! In fact, there are a ton of great apps and programs that are designed with primary learners in mind. These tools can help prepare your young students to make those bigger connections later when it’s more developmentally appropriate.

We can facilitate creative thinking and problem solving at any age, and coding is simply technological storytelling. When we expose kids to these concepts of creating a beginning, middle, and end—and then give them the freedom to express their thinking and let their imaginations go, coding can truly be an art! Now more than ever in our classrooms, our kids deserve access to the concepts that will inspire them to learn more.

In the meantime, they’re building computer literacy skills and getting comfortable navigating online tools that are important for every grade level.

How to integrate coding in your classroom routine

Virtual learning gives students an advantage that may not have been accessible before 1 to 1 learning. Every student has access to a device!

Even if you’re in a traditional classroom without one device for every student, there are ways you can integrate programming into science, art, tech time, project based learning and STEM activities in small groups. Kids can have access to structured experimentation while teachers can set goals for how to work it into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Another idea is to start a school club for coding. That gives you more wiggle room for how to integrate it if there is no computer science time available in your regular school day.

Additionally, and especially for little ones who need extra scaffolding to coding and programming concepts, there are a lot of “unplugged” coding resources available online to help expose them to the process. These resources help build background knowledge and understanding before they pick up their device and start applying that learning.

Each year, there’s an event called Hour of Code that’s a weeklong initiative to introduce kids (and teacher-newbies to computer science) to coding. You can register for this event that provides an hour of free resources for kids from kindergarten up! And the fun secret is, even though the Hour of Code Week is once a year, you can actually host an Hour of Code all year round!

Awesome coding apps for your class

Code Karts: This app is super simple and meant for your earliest coders. For teachers who are eager to help their students get that early exposure, this intuitive game is perfect! You get the first 10 levels for free, but there are a total of 95 levels if you are interested in the paid version. Check it out for Apple or Android devices.

Box Island: This is another great app for kids ages 4 and up! They’ve even added an hour of code feature if you want to integrate it into that event. There is also a Box Island for Schools, but both are for iOS devices only.

Scratch Jr: This one is my personal favorite! Developed by researchers at Tufts and MIT- It was designed with younger kids in mind after success with the Scratch interface designed for kids 8 and up. Find it in the App Store or Google Play

Lightbot Jr: Designed for kids 4-8, it’s another great app for introducing coding with simple puzzles and intuitive learning. Click here for Apple devices and here for Android.

Do you have some more advanced coders? Try the Hopscotch app for your quick learners and older students.

FUN TIP for little coders

I always choose a few "experts" for each coding lesson. These kids are given permission to walk around the room and help anyone out. There is only one rule: they are NOT allowed to use their hands to help. They can only use their voice. I do this because it encourages those who are struggling to try things themselves rather than having a classmate do it for them. Give it a try! ;)

Make sure to follow my social media (Facebook & Instagram) and let me know how coding looks for your students, and share your ideas to help kids and teachers with their coding adventures.

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Reading Fluency Practice for Early Readers

There are so many parts to reading instruction. It can be tricky to keep them all straight if you aren’t well-practiced. Luckily I can break this one down for you! And, of course, I have some great resources to improve fluency instruction in your classroom.

Eventually we want to bring primary reading skills together so kids can apply them naturally without having to think about it. But with our early and struggling readers, we need to break each skill down first. They need more time practicing each skill separately before synthesizing all them together.

What Is Fluency?

Fluency is the reader's ability to read smoothly, accurately, and with expression. It helps students move away from reading like a robot, towards reading with natural expression. Reading fluency is an important building block for reading comprehension. Let’s look at some different strategies you can use to build fluency skills in your classroom.

Why is fluency an important part of reading instruction?

When readers begin automatically recognizing words, they’re beginning to move out of the decoding phase. The oh-so-important fluency stage comes next!

Fluent readers can read a lot of words easily without breaking them down into parts. This step is vital for reading comprehension. Our kids go from knowing words to understanding what they mean in the context of the sentence. That’s a huge and crucial leap for them to make!

These reading intervention pages are perfect for helping kids first practice sounding out a word and then reading it in a sentence. 

How does fluency build better text comprehension?

Once students begin building their fluency skills, they can spend more energy focusing on meaning. Students go from understanding how to say the word correctly to the more complex comprehension strategies. Now they will be able to practice skills like making connections to ideas and applying background knowledge to their reading.

How can we get kids from sounding like robots to sounding like readers?

A great way to support fluency in children is to model fluent reading. When adults model this skill through reading aloud, students learn to recognize what reading should sound like. Parents, teachers, and others should model fluent reading across many genres. It will help show how fluency keeps readers more engaged in the story. Reading aloud also shows how words take on meaning for better comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Three more important skills to improve fluency:

Phonics Sounds

Your primary readers need a strong grasp of how letters connect to word sounds before they can begin to read fluently. For struggling readers, extra practice with phonics will help complement fluency instruction. You'll start to build a bridge between decoding and fluency.

Looking to help your learners in this area? With reading warm-ups, you can transfer learning from only the sound/blend to a whole word. Consider highlighting the sounds in the words so students can find them quickly. As they start to recognize the sounds when reading, remove this strategy and allow them to find the sounds on their own.

Sight Words

Your students can build speed and accuracy when they learn and practice sight words. When we blend the use of sight words into fluency practice passages, we're building all the parts of fluency into our practice.

The fluency phrases activity uses Dolch sight words and builds them into passages. Students can practice these and build fluency during your reading time.

Giving context to these high frequency words will help students apply meaning and build expression. We can help emergent readers make a connection between the sight words they're learning and the meaning of those words. Kids can do this when they read sight words in children's books—or in this case, reading passages.

Repeated Reading

Practicing a passage out loud is a helpful way to build automaticity and confidence in our primary readers. Repeated reading leads to better reading performance because several skills are being practiced together and in succession.

That helps increase accuracy AND speed. Together, they will give the words more meaning than simply reading with accuracy alone. Struggling readers benefit from repeated reading because they can practice strategies over and over.

Remind your kids that it is not about reading as fast as they can but as accurately as they can. The speed will naturally increase as those skills do. Repeated reading increases performance across the board. Whether students are struggling, or already reading fluently, their skills will improve with repeated reading.

Fluency mazes are a great way to encourage kids to read words more than once. Every time that they reach the end of the maze, they color a box and start over!

Looking for more resources to teach fluency to your little readers?

Here is a NO PREP Reading Intervention resource you can use in small groups with your struggling readers.

And if the words NO PREP are making your eyes light up, I have a Fluency Freebie full of printable fluency activities that you can try out.

If you find these resources useful, don’t forget to leave a review on my TPT site. And reach out on social media to let me know how they’re working for you, and what else teachers could use to help strengthen fluency instruction.

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