Employing “interactive modeling” to teach students the procedures for math word problems.

by Ann Rose Santoro

Grades K-2, Grades 3-5


In my class, I try to extend the practice of interactive modeling to core mathematical objectives—like math word problems. I model what to do and then ask my students explain what they noticed in the modeling. Then, they try it themselves while I notice what they do. Then we all do it together and notice what we’ve done. Those become our procedures for completing a word problem.

Of course, interactive modeling is an established way to teach classroom procedures like getting in line, putting books away, and bringing chairs to a meeting. In math too, interactive modeling helps students know what to expect–they know what I want them to do, and the modeling assures there’s no “gray area.”

This process is about taking something abstract and understanding it procedurally. With word problems, for example, kids often get hung up on the numbers. I ask them:

–First, to read the problem without the numbers.

–Next, to visualize what the story is about without focusing too much on the math.

–Then–only once they understand what’s happening in the story– to figure out the math principle they need to apply.

The students are secure in knowing what my expectations are and the way I want things to be done. We practice; we notice. If we make mistakes, we fix it. It’s such an ingrained practice that when I apply this approach to almost any kind of learning, the kids know what to expect. Because it’s familiar to them, they’re not intimidated when they approach something new.


What I did well…

What I did well in this clip was to validate that teaching students how to attack a word problem can be a challenge for most teachers.  I took a practice that is used by Responsive Classroom teachers to teach classroom routines, Interactive Modeling, and apply that to the process of entering into a word problem.  The clip begins with an “energizer” to get us thinking about math in a fun way. I took something familiar and applied it to something that is abstract and often frustrating for students. I would do this before presenting students with abstract and decontextualized math algorithms.

What I would do more of, better, differently…

It is hard to teach Interactive Modeling in isolation, without the background knowledge of the Responsive Classroom approach so I would teach this with that in mind. I would have had more teachers practice and notice the steps. With more time I would have practiced an unrelated procedure to ensure that all had a more solid understanding of the practice.

In what ways do I still want to grow in this practice…

Every time I think about the power of this practice, I always can make my instruction stronger by deepening my understanding of the math concepts I would like to teach as well. This was a lesson focused on using the practice, Interactive Modeling, not necessarily on teaching the concepts of addition and subtraction. The more I learn about best practices in the area of math instruction, the more powerful this practice will become. This year, I will explore ideas from the book, “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, and find ways to weave this new learning into this presentation.

About Ann Rose Santoro

Ann Rose Santoro has been in education for 30 years. She began her career as a one on one teacher’s aide for a handicapped student in 1985. Since t...

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