Spot Checks, Hooks, and Sweet Rewards: Ideas for Elementary Math

by Betty Yoder


Recently as I recounted several math ideas I find beneficial in the classroom, I thought perhaps sharing them could inspire another teacher.  After all, don’t we regularly beg, borrow, and steal ideas? I imagine that you too rarely swallow another teacher’s idea whole; almost invariably it requires at least a bit of chewing to fit both you as the teacher and fit your classroom. So, get your tweezers, pliers, or crow bar ready to perform your own tweaking—or perhaps radical renovating—and read on!

    1. I try very hard to create a schedule where students can correct their math lesson the same day (in the afternoon) rather than dragging it on to the following day. For me that is possible only because I have another adult who regularly checks the students’ work and returns it by a specific time in the afternoon. If I did not have that as an option, I would try hard to find an upper grader or high schooler who could do it. With corrections behind us, each student starts the new day with a clean slate, and with it often comes a fresh dose of courage.
    2. For correcting the lessons, I let students who have done well on that day’s work help the others correct their lessons. I give them instructions on how to help the others without giving them the answers. It ends up helping me a lot and they benefit from teaching their peers. I can then dedicate more time to those I know are struggling more.
    3. Most years I have one or more students who struggle with math and tend to miss quite a few. It is discouraging to them (not to mention me!) to regularly have a lot of correcting to do. With these in mind I begin to do what I call a spot check. Before handing it in, they give me their paper to very quickly check. I make a red dot by each incorrect one I catch in my rapid fly-over. The intent is to spot-check, not to check each one carefully. The students then have the chance to correct their work before it is officially checked by the grader. It really ends up being the same amount of work—correcting before or after—but it is much more fun to correct ahead. As far as the grade, it makes no difference with Saxon math since we count only test scores and not daily work. As they improve, the spot-check method is happily dropped.
    4. When a child or two struggles to do well and/or get finished on time, I may offer that if those students complete their work in a timely fashion and reach the standard I set, they can earn enough of a sweet reward to then pass out to the rest of the class. Setting it up so it would be reasonable to earn enough in 2-3 weeks’ time seems to work well; longer tends to be discouraging and shorter may not require the level of diligence I wish to encourage. In this scenario the struggling ones become the heroes while the rest cheer them on. Of course, they all enjoy the sweet but simple reward once enough has been earned.
    5. A favorite tool when teaching division grew out of the frustration I sensed in students when we were introducing two-step division problems in which the quotient requires two numbers. How could I teach students how much of the dividend to look at when asking how many 8’s go into that three-digit number? I invented some fishing gear terminology to help walk them through the potentially confusing steps:
        1. First they draw a line under the dividend only as far as needed until the number is larger than the divisor. Once that number is reached, they make a hook up to clearly differentiate that smaller number from the larger one. That is our “line and hook”.
        2. Next they draw lines above the numbers to show exactly where the quotient numbers will go. These are the “worms”. Any number to the left of the hook will not have a quotient number recorded, so an X is marked above that to avoid confusion. I find these simple steps really help bring clarity.

    6. In the last 8-10 weeks of school when the work gets harder even as the energy and vision lag, I like to reward good math scores with this perk: if they miss three or fewer (this number is somewhat customized to the student) they earn a “gone on vacation” ticket giving them the privilege of skipping two problems on their next lesson. The problems they choose to skip must be ones they easily know how to do, but which they would be happy to skip. Students love it and I find it a win-win situation.

This short list could be improved and lengthened if you would add your own tried and true ideas. What about spelling, writing, penmanship, or language ideas? Consider yourself invited to benefit the rest of us!

Candy photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash. Other photos by Betty Yoder.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Betty Yoder

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  • Thank you so much for sharing these tips! I teach 4th grade, and have implemented a number of these. I love the hook and worm example; it does really help to clarify that long division.