Math Strategy: Large Problems with Small Numbers

Who has students struggling with the algorithms required in basic math operations?  That get confused with what direction to go and what step is next?  I have a math strategy that just might help!

When I am working with kids who struggle in math, I like to give them very large problems for a couple of reasons.  First, it makes them feel like they are doing hard work (and gives them confidence when they’re successful).  But not only does it boost their confidence, it gives them the opportunity to see the pattern by the repetition required in a really big problem.  (I also like to use grid paper…A LOT!)

Big Addition Math Problems on Grid

For example, I have students who are working on 2-digit x 1-digit multiplication.  Instead of giving them 2-digit x 1-digit multiplication problems, like 37 x 2, I start them off with a problem like 31,120 x 3.  This lets them see that there is a pattern, but without any regrouping required.  Let’s face it, regrouping is usually where the struggling students get tripped up.  If I can give them enough practice with large problems that do not require regrouping, they will easily be able to do the smaller problems.  Then we can transition to the larger problems that do require regrouping.

Large Problems with Small Numbers Save As

If you’re interested in trying this out, click the picture above to download a free ebook with addition and subtraction samples.  I have multiplication and long division ebooks available on  I’d love to know your thoughts and tips for teaching math!

Joy of Teaching

Motivating Struggling Readers

Have you ever read a book that redefined how you taught?  A few years ago I read “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller and have wanted to put some of her ideas into practice with my group of students.  Keep in mind that I teach 4th and 5th grade students with special needs, so it was necessary to make some adjustments.  This year I’ve been able to teach reading the way I want to with my students who needed a modified ELA program.

In her book, Donalyn Miller makes a strong argument that students with special needs have a reading gap partially because they have had less time to actually read than their peers.  She’s right.  When the rest of the class is silent reading, struggling students are often pulled to work on reading strategies.  They miss out on self-selected reading.  When there is so much research that says the best way to become a better reader is by reading, this is a problem that must be addressed.

Motivating Struggling Readers Blog

There are three main things I focused on when designing my reading program for this year: motivation, self-selected silent reading, and exposure to rich grade level (or near grade level) texts.  I decided to make a class goal of 1000 books.  I told the kids that if they got to 1000, we would decide on a reward.  I made a chart and the students got to color in one box every time they read a book and then scored an 80% or higher on the Accelerated Reader (AR) quiz.  If they scored a 100% on the AR quiz, they also earned a piece of candy from my Candy Box.  Now, I really don’t like to use candy on a regular basis in my classroom, but it is the quickest and most successful motivator with my group of students that I have found.  There is an extra reward of a handful of “pennies” for anyone who passes a test on a chapter book.  The “pennies” are part of a math program I do.  (More about that another time.)

For the self-selected silent reading, I started by building up my students’ reading stamina.  Our first week was limited to five minute chunks.  Then I bumped them up to 10.  Then 15.  After Christmas break, we began reading for half an hour at a time.  They really struggle with anything longer than that.  For the first entire month of school, I let all of my kids read anything they chose out of my classroom library.  Most of them chose very easy picture books written around a kindergarten level.  Of course they did.  They wanted to earn that piece of candy.  Now, this was an important step because I needed to hook them into wanting to read by giving them a way to be successful immediately.  After the first month, I removed all books that were below a first grade level.  After the second month of school, I removed all that were lower than second.  Most of my kids comprehend on a second grade level, so I this was where they needed to be.  I’ve been increasing their reading level just by removing certain books from my library.  They still feel like they have complete control over what they are choosing to read, which is tremendously important.

My last focus was a bit harder to figure out.  I know my students need to be exposed to rich grade level texts, but how do I accomplish that when they can’t read and comprehend on grade level?  My local public library had an answer.  They offer many upper elementary books on Playaways.  Playaways are these nifty mp3 players that are preloaded with one book.  They only have the buttons needed to play the audiobook and have a headphone jack.  I purchased a couple of multi-headphone splitters from Amazon and checked out about a dozen grade-level Playaways along with the books for students to follow along with.  Have I said how much I love my library?  Then I let my kids list their top three picks (remember I want them to be selecting their reading material as much as possible).  They were thrilled.  They’ve read “Bridge to Terabithia”, “Stone Fox”, “The Dollhouse Murders” (which they ALL loved), “A Wrinkle in Time”, “Where the Red Fern Grows”, and “Sarah, Plain and Tall” just to name a few.  Not all of my kids are comprehending these as they are above their reading (and listening) comprehension level, but I feel good that they are being exposed to them in a nonthreatening way.

My reading block is primarily self-selected reading.  I do a micro-lesson (ten minutes, tops) and then set the timer for silent reading/audiobook listening.  Everybody (including me) reads during this time.  No exceptions.  We make ourselves comfortable, take our shoes off if we choose, get out headphones and get to work.  This happens  No exceptions.  I give this the highest importance and I will let all of my other plans slide before we skip silent reading.  Even on our reward day, we did our silent reading first.  The kids know how much I love to read and how important I think it is.  In addition to the timed audiobook segment, I give them an additional time (sometimes through station rotation) for AR.  This gives them a chance to read picture books of their choosing in addition to grade level texts.  I feel it is important for my kids to be able to read picture books because many of them do not have the memory skills needed to keep a longer book in their heads.

**Click on the picture below for a
free download of the chart I’ve been using!**

We Can Read 1000 Books

Now, even though I believed that self-selected reading is important, I was unprepared for the amount of growth that occurred.  Their AIMSweb (fluency) scores increased and their reading comprehension improved.  Just like that.  Give them LOTS of time to read and they will make big gains.  I am so tickled for them!  Do you know, I now have a group of kids who are in the “100 book club”?  And I have one who has just surpassed the 200 book mark!  In one school year!  I don’t care if that is mostly picture books.  That is A LOT of reading!  Oh, and my group of 15 has made our 1000 book goal…by February!  They had a great time watching a movie as a treat.  Now we’re trying for 1500.  When they make that goal, they’ll get an extra recess (during reading) every day for the rest of the year!  I doubt that will happen before May, so I felt safe in offering it.  🙂

Because I am SO STINKIN’ PROUD of them, I’m showing you their fluency progress charts.  I know that not all are making progress (but most ARE!), but I have faith that they will.  The goal is for their red dotted line to be above the solid black one.  These charts were from right before Christmas.  The kids have continued to show growth after that point.  They are simply amazing!

AIMSweb Graphs December 2014

I highly recommend giving your kids a good chunk of time for self-selected silent reading.  Do you do that already?  Leave me a comment and tell me all about it!

Joy of Teaching

Line Start Spot – A Lining Up Bright Idea

Okay.  This bright idea is a quick tip to use when having kids line up.  I get irritated when kids are lined up and someone is trying to enter or leave the classroom, when kids are sticking their heads (and often their bodies) into the hallway, and when there is such a traffic jam at the head of the line that I can’t even get to the front.  And that is where my bright idea comes in.

Line Start Spot Horizontal

I made a square pyramid out of a used box and spray painted it black.  Then, I attached a string to it and hung it from the ceiling.  The key is to hang it far enough away from the doorway that the door can open and close without hitting any kids.  The only rule is that the first person in line has to be standing directly under the square pyramid.

Line Start Spot Vertical

There.  What an easy fix.  It makes it so much nicer for everybody.  Now, I know many can’t hang anything from the ceilings, but I wonder if some painter’s tape, washi tape, or duct tape on the ceiling wouldn’t work just as well.  What are your tips for having students lined up and ready to go?


Be sure to check out the other Bright Ideas below!

Joy of Teaching




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