Updated: Apr 19
Have you ever asked a child to clean their room? Or clean their desk? Or organize their backpack? It's usually met with a lot of groans and eye rolls, or the classic strategy of throw everything away. Getting elementary-aged children to clean and organize things is typically not an easy task (although I know there are some kids who are naturally more organized). So if children don't want to clean/organize their physical space, then how in the world can we get them to organize their work when solving math problems?
One of the biggest challenges for many students in math is in fact, organization. Sometimes, children know how to solve math problems, but they get in their own way of finding a correct answer with sloppy handwriting, numbers that are hard to read, or a page of numbers and work that they can't figure out where they started and where they ended. So as a teacher/parent what can you do to help a child be more organized in math? Surely it can't be as hard as getting them to clean their room, right? Check out these few easy tips to try today that will help children see this organization as something that is helpful, not something that requires sighs and face in palm attitudes.
What are some organizational tools that work?
Work on 'math handwriting' We often think about handwriting during ELA, but rarely does it come up in conversation during math time. But it's tricky because just like how kids need to be able to read their own handwriting to see what they wrote in writing class, they also need to be able to read the numbers they wrote in order to solve problems in math class. At the elementary level, children are still working on their fine-motor skills and developing handwriting (sometimes even changing their handwriting daily to see what they like best). But if they look down at their math homework and can't figure out if they wrote a 7 or a 1, or if they write the number 28 or 38, then it can make it challenging for a child to correctly solve a math problem. So what can you do to support your students (or your children) with their handwriting in math?
Try using grid paper or graph paper: have the child write each number in the squares of the grid paper so they can clearly see the numbers they wrote. If the number is 345, they would write a 3 in one box, a 4 in the next and a 5 in the next. This helps for lining up numbers for adding and subtracting using place value understanding and it also is closely aligned to a place value chart. You can play around with different-sized grid paper depending on how large your child's handwriting is. Download grid paper for free on the downloads tab of my website.
Do they need to use pencils? Ask yourself that question. If you don't feel extremely passionate about children using pencils for math problem-solving, then allow them to use pens. Does anybody do their best handwriting with pencils? Try erasable pens, or a system where children very neatly cross off any work that they want to "erase" if using a non-erasable pen. This may help children use better handwriting on their math work.
Use highlighters as an organization tool Just like how highlighters are helpful in ELA, they are extremely helpful in math. Not only can children highlight parts of the math story problem they are trying to solve (to build comprehension of the problem and figure out what they know and what they are trying to solve). But these highlighters can also be used to organize work on their paper. In multi-step problems, have children highlight the partial answers in one color so that they can easily refer back to these when solving the larger problem. Or have children use highlighters to mark parts of the problem they want to go back and check or that they are unsure about. I don't recommend that children actually do the writing of the problems on their paper in highlighter, but rather use these as a tool to make information on their paper stand out, and keep their strategies organized.
Create a Graphic Organizer I keep coming back to this idea, but things that work in ELA, work in math too! While reading, children often use graphic organizers to organize their thinking. Well in math, these graphic organizers are extremely helpful for story problem solving. A graphic organizer is simply a visual way to organize information. So these can look different depending on the type of problem the child is solving, just like how they would look different depending on the genre of text that a child is reading. For example, if a child is working on addition story problems, and are having trouble keeping their work organized, you could make a four-column chart. The first column would have the first number to be added, the second column would have the operation (add, subtract, multiply or divide--in this case addition), the third column would have the second number to be added and the final column would have an equal sign and the sum. Of course if problems have multiple steps, then you would need to expand this graphic organizer, but the idea is to create a structure where children can write their strategy and keep it organized. I'll do a blog post another day on what some specific math graphic organizers can look like, but if you want a visual, check out this blog post by Upper Elementary Snapshots to get some ideas. And if a graphic organizer isn't your jam, then you can always support a child by sectioning off their paper into "things I know," "my work/my strategies" and "my answer/my solution." Something as simple as putting three horizontal lines (or vertical lines) on a piece of paper can be enough to help a child keep their work organized! It's worth a try!
What works for one child, might not work for another child because organization is so personal. So try these organization tools one at a time to see what works best for your child/student and come up with a go-to system that works for them!
Materials to have ready for math organization
Graph paper or 1 inch grid paper
Colored highlighters (or light-colored markers)
Sharp pencils (because nothing makes handwriting worse than writing with a dull pencil), with erasers or erasable pens.
Whiteboards and whiteboard markers
Baskets with math tools (get as fancy as you want with labeling and color coding).