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How to Empower Students Based on Their Readiness to Learn

May 13, 2024 No Comments

Have you ever started teaching your students a new math concept and realized that they lack the necessary prerequisite skills to learn the new skill? I’m sure your answer is… every single time!

A student’s readiness to learn is critical when learning new skills. For example, if you teach multi-digit multiplication, but your students don’t know their math facts, they will struggle to learn and master this new concept. They need to know their math facts to succeed when multiplying multi-digit numbers.

So what can we do? That is a great question. We can differentiate the content, process, and product according to a student’s readiness to learn. 

We, as teachers, differentiate to help our students succeed in their learning journey. We can differentiate the content (what we want our students to learn), the process (how they learn the skills and concepts), and the product (how they demonstrate their learning). when we differentiate each of these ways according to a student’s academic readiness, we can provide them with the needed support so they can be successful. 

This probably seems more complicated than it is, and my guess is that you are already practicing various differentiation strategies in your upper-grade math class. Let’s look at effective learning strategies to differentiate according to student’s readiness to learn, which will lead to school success.

How to empower students based on their readiness to learn

Differentiating Content According to Student Readiness to Learn

The content is what we, as teachers, teach and want our students to know. So, differentiating the content according to a student’s readiness to learn means that we support students in our instruction. We can use many effective learning strategies when introducing new math concepts to our students, but here are a few ideas…

Pre-Assessments: Assessing students on new math concepts before we teach them can be a powerful tool in our instruction. This strategy lets us know what different skills our students have. School readiness tests then let us know how to help students succeed as they learn new skills.

Pre-assessments can certainly be paper and pencil, but there are also more options! Interviews and observations are great tools for assessing a student’s skill level in the early learning stages. After watching students perform even the most basic math tasks, you can very easily and quickly see and note what skills they have and are lacking. 

Use pre-assessments to determine a student's readiness to learn.

Once you have pre-assessed your students, you can move more confidently into instruction because you know where you need to provide more support.

Front-loading Vocabulary: This differentiation strategy is effective no matter what type of learner you are looking to support. Math can be full of vocabulary that can get in the way of learning. So, when we take the time to work on the vocabulary needed to learn a new skill before we start teaching it, it can help lead to student success. 

Let’s take fractions, for example. If you are teaching equivalent fractions, think about all the vocabulary you will use: numerator, denominator, equivalent fraction, simplest form, and more. This vocabulary can be a lot to process while learning a new skill. But if you take the time to work on these vocabulary words before they start the learning process, it will help the student’s ability to navigate learning this new concept. They will already know and be familiar with the numerator and denominator instead of trying to figure that out while also looking for equivalent fractions. 

Creating word walls, anchor charts, math journals, and more with these new vocabulary words will be a great reference point for students in the learning process that requires little time from us. Front-loading vocabulary is a great way to help improve a student’s readiness to learn.

Goal-setting: Remember the multi-digit multiplication example we discussed? Students need to know their multiplication facts to be successful when learning many new math skills. But what if you have students (no matter the grade) who don’t have those skills? Let’s set some goals to help those students get them!

Goal-setting is a differentiation strategy that targets specific skills for individual students. While there may be many skills that you want your students to learn, when and how they get there can be personalized. Goal-setting isn’t something you need to do with each student for every skill, but it is a beneficial tool when you are looking to help support a student who may be struggling with a skill they need to be ready to learn more complex concepts. 

One of the biggest challenges with goal-setting can be time. So, I suggest finding a time once a week to to create and check in with students on their goals. These conferences can be brief but also a great way to assess further a student’s readiness to learn.

Differentiating Process According to Student Readiness to Learn

I often refer to the process as the practice. The next stage is how students work to make sense of and understand the content they are learning. So, differentiating the process according to their readiness to learn means we provide scaffolds throughout the learning process. It means we look at and see where a student is regarding their understanding of a new skill and meet them there to move them forward to mastery. There are so many differentiation strategies that can be used, and I bet you already implement many, but here are a few examples.

Think-Pair-Share: Students can feel a lot of pressure when they feel fully responsible for an answer. However, when given time to collaborate or share their thinking, they are relieved of that pressure and can focus more on the skill they are practicing. This classic differentiation strategy can be used in various ways but always allows students to work through their learning. 

When using the think-pair-share strategy, I always use the vocabulary, “What did you say or hear someone say?” Again, we work to alleviate some of the pressure of having the correct answer. No matter the student’s skills, this strategy allows them to start where they are and build, with help from their peers, from there.

Small Groups: We frequently see small groups in reading, but they can be less common in math. But just like reading, they can be a powerful tool for academic success. When you meet with students in small groups, it can be easier to meet the unique needs of your learners.

For example, let’s say you are teaching division with remainders. Chances are you will have students ready to move into remainders right away, while others may still be working to grasp the concept of division altogether. When you meet with students in small groups, you can start with the skills they have acquired. So, one group may be ready to divide 2-digit numbers into larger digits with remainders. In contrast, another group may need extra practice dividing 1-digit numbers into more significant numbers with remainders. Still, another group may need some extra practice dividing numbers without remainders. With small groups, you assess your student’s readiness to learn the new standard or skill and work from there.

One caveat to differentiating according to readiness is that we must always strive for the grade-level standard or skill. So, all students need to work on learning how to divide numbers with remainders, but where we start that learning process with a group of students depends on student readiness. This can be hard work, but it is crucial.

Tiered Assignments: Providing leveled activities for students to practice can help students develop the academic skills they need. Tiered assignments will provide students with varying levels of support based on their readiness to learn. Some activities will give simplified problems, some will offer fewer choices, and some may provide math tools to help students solve the problems. There are various ways that an assignment may be leveled, but the goal is to allow students to be more successful as they work to build a new skill.

One of my favorite tiered assignments is grade-level color by numbers. These color-by-number activities include three versions, so you can easily differentiate according to academic readiness. Students can solve the problems on the problem-solving page and then use those answers to color the picture.

What makes these great is that the images look the same in the end, no matter the version. This allows you to differentiate according to skill level without making it obvious to students that they are working on different levels. 

Use tiered assignments to differentiate according to a student's readiness to learn.

These color-by-numbers are available in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade standards. You can incorporate them into your lesson plan for small groups, math centers, or independent practice. 

Differentiating Products According to Student Readiness to Learn

Finally, let’s look at differentiating products according to readiness to learn. Products are assessments. They are how our students use their proximity to master the concepts they have been learning. When we differentiate according to a student’s readiness to learn, we want to ensure that we assess the standard or concept we have been teaching, not necessarily another skill they may or may not have. 

Let’s go back to that multiplication example. When we assess a student’s knowledge of multi-digit multiplication, we want to make sure that we are looking to see if they understand how to multiply multi-digit numbers, not whether or not they know their math facts. But if we give them a page filled with multiplication problems and no differentiation, they never get past what four times eight is. So here are some ideas on how we can assess our students’ academic learning.

Open-Ended Questions: I know this can be challenging in math. So often, there is just a right and wrong answer. However, open-ended questions can help us understand our students’ thought processes. When we ask students to walk us through a concept or allow them to explain something beyond a right or wrong answer, we begin to understand what they comprehend and where they are in their readiness to learn.

Math Toolkits: This is one of my favorite ways to differentiate according to student readiness. We give students math toolkits to support them in their learning. These toolkits don’t give students the answers to problems but the tools they need to solve them.

For example, if you are teaching metric measurement conversions and your students struggle to remember the metric system, you can give them a tool with the metric system written out on it. The students can use that tool to convert metric measurements. The tool won’t convert the measurements for them, but it eliminates the stress of trying to remember the vocabulary and order of the metric system. This powerful assessment tool can allow you to see what your student understands and needs more support.

Math toolkits are a great way to differentiate according to a student's readiness to learn.

These toolkits are free and available in place value, fractions, measurement, and geometry. You download, print, and glue the tools you want to use, and you’ve made a toolkit! You can customize each toolkit based on the skills your students need extra support with. And when you feel they don’t need the toolkit’s support anymore, they can put it away. 

I allow students to use toolkits for practice and on products because I want them to build their confidence and assess their readiness to learn.

Teaching excellence begins with our ability to differentiate according to our students’ learning readiness. Students do not all come to use on a level playing field. But when we use these strategies and more, we help close academic gaps, build student confidence, and create lifelong learners willing to keep plugging away.

Amanda Stitt

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I’m a mom, military spouse, and teacher trying to find the elusive balance of everything going on in life. I am passionate about helping teachers feel supported and equipped to meet the needs of their unique learners. Thanks for stopping by and let’s start teaching together! Read More

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