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Determining Importance-- Building Mathematical Comprehension

The ability to determine importance seems to be one of the more difficult skills for my kiddos. They seem to have such a hard time weeding out the non-useful information. So, I found Chapter 7 to be especially interesting. Consider this:

"Unless they learn to recognize important and useful information, they grasp at facts, no matter how irrelevant they may be to the mathematical work at hand." 

Yep. That's what I see in the classroom.

Just as in reading, there are three levels of Determining Importance:
  1. Word Level - Math has a very distinctive and precise vocabulary.  In addition to knowing math-specific vocabulary, kiddos also need to know that text features matter in math, too. Pay attention to those words in bold, italics, or highlighting! If we don't provide explicit instruction about these, kiddos may overlook their importance.
  2. Sentence Level - Kiddos need to know that some sentences carry more weight.....those that contain a lot of those mathematical words are probably going to matter more. They also need to be aware of the typical structure of word problems: Usually, the first sentence introduces the context, the middle holds the information, and there's a question at the end that tells us what we're looking for. But be careful! "Teaching the structure as a shortcut that eliminates the need for thinking, it should be taught as an aid that may assist in distinguishing essential information from irrelevant facts." (p. 201).
  3. Idea Level - These are the BIG ideas of math....the overall meaning of the problem scenario. Of course, kiddos must have word level and sentence level understanding before they can reach this level of comprehension....which is what we're all about....right?
So, how can we help our kiddos develop this oh-so-important skill? Sammons gives some suggestions:
  • Modeling & Think Alouds - Do you do enough of this in math? I'm afraid that I don't spend nearly as much time in math as I do in reading instruction. I'm putting this on my short list of goals/tweaks for this year.
  • Build on the Concrete - It's hard for little ones to understand the abstract, so it needs to be attached to concrete. Here's a fun object lesson that's derived from MacGregor (2007): 
    • Use a spaghetti strainer to illustrate what our brains do when they're determining importance. BUT, rather than explaining the connection, have your kiddos come up with the connection! 
  • Zoom IN/Zoom Out - Think of the zoom feature on your camera... Help your class zoom in on the information in the problem, then zoom out to take a look at the whole of the problem. 
  • Math Stretches: What's Most Important About __________?- You post the topic, kiddos add their ideas about what they think is most important about the topic. For example, you might post, What's Most Important About FRACTIONS? Kiddos might say they're pieces, they're equal, or they're parts of a whole.

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  1. I love this blog! I'm learning soooo much! And finally, I have an idea to share. I use The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown at the beginning of the year. It models a structure for identifying and expressing the most important characteristics about objects. This can then be extended to any concept/skill I teach for the rest of the year. It's a great discussion-starter and students enjoy defending their reasoning for choice of "most important thing".

    1. Thanks so much, Mrs. Brockhagen!! Love the idea of using The Important Book & extending it to lessons throughout the year! Brilliant!