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Early Math Literacy Counts!

Nicole Houston Johnson, Ed.D

Chief Partnerships and Opportunities Officer


No doubt about it, I have always been a Math Geek! As young as I can remember I was obsessed with numbers. I counted everything I saw, everywhere I went. As early as Kindergarten, I can recall counting the miniature holes in the ceiling tiles during nap time. It wasn’t til I became a math teacher did I realize how fortunate my education had been. Honestly, I took for granted how important the math foundation, I received under the teaching of missionaries at my elementary school. They enjoyed teaching math and made sure we did also. Each math lesson included vocabulary, manipulatives, and a discussion with my peers and teacher. Now “turn and talk” was not coined in the “70’s but I remember having the opportunity to discuss my learning with the students who sat next to me. We shared how we got our answer and if our methods were different our teacher would clarify if the methodology we used was appropriate. As a child, I was always eager to share my answer, see what my classmate had, and if our methods differed. Knowing that there were multiple pathways to success allowed for a certain freedom that I appreciated. One thing was clear, learning in our community was consistently about demonstrating the learning with others. This built our confidence as mathematicians and critical thinkers.

Currently our instructional team, ITTL – Increasing Teaching Transforming Learning, has been charged by the Kellogg Foundation to impact Early Math Literacy in the Delta. Given my love for mathematics, I was super excited about this project. With 25 years of experience working in education and reflecting on my own individual experiences as a young learner, I was grateful to join our team as we prepared to increase life chances for these students. Research shows that early math achievement can impact students’ success in higher graders.

“…….. kids who do well in math early on tend to do very well in school.”

Greg Duncan, Economist and Education Professor

After having the opportunity to visit the students and teachers in the identified schools, we decided to focus on the following areas: Working with Words, Use of Manipulatives, Collaborative Problem Solving, and Teacher Guided Stations. Our goal was to develop students’ ability to use mathematical language to engage in meaningful conversations and articulate mathematical processes they had used to demonstrate their learning of the standards being taught. Our team provided professional development to all K-3 teachers. During the 1st quarter of the year, teachers were expected to create interactive word walls and anchor charts aligned to the daily lessons. Students were encouraged to use math talk/vocabulary during lesson discussions with peers and teachers. Math journals were established. Teachers were requested to ensure that during Small Group - at least one rotation should be dedicated to developing Math Literacy. Specifically, K-3 teachers would focus on Operations with Numbers. Number sense is the foundation of math awareness. By dedicating a station to counting, adding, and subtracting deepens students number sense.

To be an effective Math teacher, students must consistently have opportunities to engage in mathematical practices that deepen their quality of understanding and learning. During the 2nd quarter, I had the opportunity to return for a follow up visit to observe the implementation and overall impact to student learning. I contacted the principals prior to the visit and informed them of the following:

We will visit all K-3 classrooms during their Math Instructional time. Our “Look Fors” will be aligned to the professional development session provided and will include the following: Use of Math Talk ● Interactive Word Wall ● Anchor Charts ● Small Group (at least one rotation should be dedicated to developing Math Literacy).

I smiled throughout the day, witnessing students having positive experiences with math. Students were engaging in math talk in numerous ways. In Kindergarten they were Sing-along counting to 10, Using their fingers to count to 10; as well as touching and counting to 10. Grade 3 students immediately went to their Math Journals, when asked “What is a multiple?”. In that same classroom, small group stations were established with Standard posted and activity ready. I was able to capture many exemplar anchor charts – example #1, example #2, example #3, example #4, example #5, and example #6.

As we continue our work in these schools, we will provide additional professional development opportunities to improve the interactive word walls, small group literacy stations, and teachers’ knowledge of standards to better impact students mathematical learning.

I would be remise not to say that I walk into classrooms looking through many lenses: Former school leader, math teacher, mother, and grandmother of a PreK-3 grandson with suspected Autism. My expectations are high! Why? Because students deserve a quality lesson each and every day. Plus, I want them to love learning as much as I do. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below and share your experience with early math literacy.

We enoyed teaching
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