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Guided Math Workshop Routines & Tips for Getting Started

guided math workshop ideas for teachers

Reader's workshop has been around for a long time. In many districts, guided reading groups are a required part of the literacy block. And for good reason. Small group lessons provide differentiation and let the teacher keep close tabs on struggling students.

But what about math? Best practices in the classroom today are to use small-group instruction to meet the needs of all students. If this is true (and it is!), why hasn't math workshop and guided math instruction found the same following?

Math continues to build and change from year to year. ​​Math in third grade looks ​​NOTHING like math in high school. In math, if I miss something essential early on, I may find myself falling farther and father behind because that skill likely won't be taught again next year. Actually, it may never be explicitly taught again.

When teachers only use whole group math instruction, they miss one of the best ways to target the individual needs of each student: small-group focus lessons. In small groups you can remediate specific skills and provide enrichment for your advanced students. That's why the guided math framework is so great for a variety of grade levels, from elementary through middle school.

In this blog post, I'm going to share some practical ideas for setting up a successful math workshop in your classroom and teaching guided math in small groups.

how do you set up & structure math workshop?

Planning your math block around guided math groups isn't all that hard, really! You just need 3 things:

  • a spot to meet with your groups

  • a rotation schedule or daily routine

  • independent practice activities

Let's look at each of these...

A Spot to Meet

I would guess that the majority of teachers use their "reading table" to meet with small groups. Why can't it also be a "math table"? I don't even use a table at all. I meet with students on the rug in front of my big whiteboard easel. This gives us a place to spread out with math tools, math journals, individual whiteboards, or whatever else we need.

I LOVE my whiteboard easel because I can use it to model strategies and the kids can use it to share their work. I use my math area for both small group instruction and whole group lessons with the entire class which I will describe in just a minute.

A Rotation Schedule

This is actually the trickiest part of the math workshop framework. But it's no different than scheduling your reading groups. I can't tell you exactly how to do it because each class is unique. It will depend mainly on the number of students and how much time you have each day.

However, one thing that should be the same across all classrooms: your math groups should be fluid - based on your formative assessments and observations - and you should meet with your low groups as much as possible. (Don't forget your high kids though! They need enrichment and can be pushed further than the curriculum goes.)

Math Centers

These won't look the same for everyone. Your grade level, standards, and student abilities will dictate your centers. You want to student independence during math stations, so select activities involving skills they have already learned, not new ones. The important thing is to keep it simple! Math centers can quickly get out of hand if you give too many choices or constantly change them. I use the same 4 every week:

  • Technology - There are so many worthwhile apps and math website to choose from! Check out this list if you need some ideas: Websites for Learning

  • Partner Work - All you really need for this center are some whiteboards and dry erase markers. Kids love to quiz each other and make up problems for their partner to solve. They can also work on fact fluency using flash cards. Sometimes I like to put out math brain teasers or word problems for my students to work on together. They area a great way to build problem solving strategies.

  • Games - This is always the favorite center! There are so many great games that build math skills. You can make them, buy them, or find printable ones online.

  • Task Cards - I usually keep a bin of task cards for students to choose from for this center. They can take a set back to their seat to work on and then trade it for another set when they are done. For me, the best way to organize task cards is to keep them in little 3x5 photo albums. The cards are kept in order, can't be bent or written on, and don't get lost. It also makes clean-up super easy.

  • Meet With Teacher - This isn't a scheduled rotation in my room (although it could be in yours). I call students up as needed, changing my groups daily based on who I need to see for which skill. I always keep white boards, markers, erasers, scrap paper, and manipulatives like rulers and base ten blocks nearby.

HELPFUL TIP: Go to Home Depot or Lowes, buy a piece of shower board (about $20) and ask them to cut it into small rectangles (12x15 works well). They make perfect individual whiteboards that can be used during your math groups. Students will also use them at centers to work out problems. They are invaluable! For erasers, just cut up an old towel or use old socks. At my school, we have a huge surplus of cloth masks (thanks covid), so I've been using those as you can see here:

How to Structure your math lessons during math workshop

Once your rotations are set up, you're reading to start math workshop! But first, take a little time to plan out how and when you will teach new skills. I prefer to do most of my instruction in small group. The kids are more focused and I can move at their speed without worrying about losing the attention of my higher learners or moving too fast for my lower ones. Here is how I structure my actual lessons:

Whole Group Mini Lesson

This is how I start my math block. Everyone gathers on the rug and we do a couple of math warms ups which are just a few quick mental math problems. Then, I pose our "Math Question of the Day" (usually some type of real-world problem) to solve together. This is basically a math talk where the students share strategies and solutions. I briefly review whatever math concept we've been working on or introduce a new one.

Most of my instruction for our current topic happens in small group. During this whole group lesson, we might also create anchor charts or do a 3-act math task. The point of my mini lesson is always to build a math-positive classroom culture where we help each other become better problem solvers. I limit my whole group instruction to about 15 minutes each day so I can spend more time working with my guided math groups.

Small Group Math Instruction

As students are working in their math centers, I call up my groups. I do a quick 3-minute warm up to practice math facts and then we move into our current topic. I always use a gradual release model when teaching math. So you will see me modeling strategies and breaking them into manageable steps, guiding the students, and then moving them towards independent practice. We use a lot of manipulatives to explore math concepts during small group.

Teaching math this way is so much more effective. You can address student misconceptions as soon as you see them and give your lower students the one-on-one attention they often need. I also love that I can easily take anecdotal notes during my groups. It makes progress monitoring easier and helps when I'm writing my lesson plans.

If one group shows mastery of a concept, I can move on to something else or provide enrichment. If another group is struggling, I can work with them on prerequisite skills. It's so much easier than trying to move your whole class along at the same pace.

How long should guided math groups be?

I strongly suggest being flexible when it comes to how long you meet with your math groups. Since I don't have "meet with teacher" as a scheduled rotation, I'm able to change the timing from day to day. If one group needs more time to work on a concept, I give it to them and reduce the amount of time I spend with my highest group. Generally, my groups last about 20 minutes, but this is just a rough guideline.

Guided math workshop takes a little bit of time to set up, but it's well worth it. I've seen so much student success since implementing it in my math classroom. The amount of learning has increased dramatically and there has been a positive change in my students' attitude about math.


If you need a little help getting started, you can find this Guided Math Workshop Starter Pack in my shop that has everything you need!


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