Category Archives: Scaffolding

Simplifying not so Simple Equation Solving

Several special ed teachers identified solving multi-step equations as the most challenging math topic to teach in middle school math. Here is my approach to teaching multi-step equations like 3m + 4m + 1 = 15. .

First, I use a task analysis approach to break down the math topic like we cut up a hotdog for a baby in a high chair. MOST of the steps involved are prior knowledge or prerequisites skills. I present these in a Do Now (warm up, bell ringer, initiation) – see image below. This allows me to fill in the gaps and to lay the foundation for the lesson. The prerequisite skills include simplifying expressions and solving 2 step equations. I also present meaning for the equation with a relevant real life problem that is modeled by this equation. By attempting the walkathon problem without the “mathy” approach, the students will more likely understand the equation and why they add 3m and 4m.

After reviewing the Do Now I use Graspable Math, which is a free online application that allows users to enter their own expressions and equations. These can be manually simplified and solved by moving parts around. Here is a tutorial on how to do this. This allows them to manually work with the simplifying and the equation before working on the handout, in a concrete-representational-abstract approach.

This is followed by a scaffolded handout with the use of color coding. I have student work on the first step in isolation as that is the new step (the other steps are prior knowledge and were addressed in the Do Now). This avoids all the work on the other steps that can result in sensory overload and allows me to address mistakes in the new content immediately.

This handout can have the equations removed and be used as a blank template to follow. In turn this would be followed with regular solving worksheets.

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Learning Math – The Patting Head and Rubbing Belly Phenomena

In education, math especially, there exist a learning situation I call the patting head and rubbing belly phenomena. In this phenomena students are presented a math problem that consists of several steps they know how to do and then maybe one or two additional steps that are new. Adding the additional step is like adding the task of patting your head while you rub you belly. The additional math step seems so simple, but attempting it simultaneously with an additional task can make the entire effort exceedingly challenging. A related scenario is generalization to different settings, but that is different. This is true for all types of math, whether it is the general curriculum or life skills/consumer math.

I have written about how we cut up a hotdog for a baby in a highchair and that we could do the same for math topics using a task analysis and chunking approach. Related to this, I recommended that support class be used not to backfill gaps but to address prerequisite skills for upcoming or current math topics covered in a general ed math class.

This phenomena plays out in life skills math or consumer math in a stealthy manner because the steps or tasks seem so simple. For example, many of us have worked with a child or student who was learning to count money. When learning about a nickel or a quarter, the coin name and value are easily identified. Once both are introduced, many students confuse the two and may even freeze while attempting the work with the coins.

There is an ABA based process for addressing this using a task analysis and chaining in which steps are worked on in isolation before connecting (chaining) the steps together (and not all of them at once until the end). One related strategy to help implement this approach is through scaffolded handouts in which the steps are enumerated and the structure of the handout isolates the tasks. I have used this approach for 1 to 1 correspondence up to AP Statistics (see below).

When working out a draft of an IEP, I suggest having the task analysis and chaining explicitly identified in the accommodations page and ask for an example of what this looks like (using an example math topic).

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Introduction to Unit Cost (Unit Rate)

Unit rate (e.g., hamburger meat on sale for $2.39 per pound or you make $13 per hour) is an incredibly important topic in middle and high school. First, unit rates and unit costs are common in life. Second, in the Common Core State Standards math categories you can see that Ratios and Proportions (which includes unit rate) are a 6th and 7th grade topic and are then replaced by Functions in 8th grade. Below is a photo showing a graph of a function you can see that the slope in an application is a unit rate.

The unit rate is also conceptually challenging whether it is in a function or is a unit cost at the store. This is a major sticking point for many students in special ed who have fallen behind. To address this, I used the approach below.

First, I present a pack of items the student likes (4 pack of Muscle Milk for this student). Use a Jamboard to show a 4 pack and the price of the 4 pack (photo on left). Then I “pull out” the 4 individual bottles and divide the $8 among the bottles to show $2 for each bottle. Finally, I have the student shop for packs of items at a grocery store or Amazon and compute the price for 1 item using a mildly scaffolded handout.

I Follow the same steps for ounces or pounds but show how 4 oz is divided into single ounces (in lieu of a pack divided into single items). Then the student shops for items that can easily be divided to get a unit cost.

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Solving Equations – Scaffolded Handouts

There are several layers to solving equations that can be unpacked using a task analysis approach. This includes written and mental steps (such as what we teachers mean when we tell a student to do the same thing to “both sides of the equation”).

To unpack the layers for students, I have had a lot of success with the scaffolded handouts below (see last photo of example of what to write.) Here is a link to a Dropbox folder with all 4 handouts, in WORD format. Feel free to use and revise as desired.

That is all I have to say about that.

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Using $10 and $1 Bills to Represent Regrouping in Addition or Subtraction

Money is intuitive for many students, even when the underlying math is not. For example, I often find that students who do not understand well the concept of Base 10 place value do understand $10 and $1 bills. With this in mind, I created a virtual scaffolded handout that builds on student intuitive understanding of the bills through the use of $10 and $1 bills to represent regrouping. Here is a video showing how I use it.

In the photo below, at the top, a $10 bill was borrowed into the ones column. The reason is that $7 needed to be paid (subtracted) but there were only five $1 bills. In the photo below, bottom, the $10 bill was converted into ten $1 bills. On the left side of the handout, the writing on the numbers shows the “mathy” way to write out the borrowing.

Once the student begins work with only the numbers, the $10s and $1s can be referenced when discussing the TENS and ONES places of the numbers. This will allow the student to make a connection between the numbers and their intuitive, concrete representation of the concept.

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Counting Out Value of Coins

Counting out the total value for a set of coins can be very challenging for students who struggle with money.

Here is a video showing how to use a WORD document table a former colleague and I created to support students in a life skills class. The video shows how this handout is used but does so with a virtual version the can be completed on the computer (see image below). Here is a link to the virtual document.

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Worksheet Websites I Use and Recommend

The following are screen shots of online math worksheet websites I use. The variety and the options in the criteria you select for your worksheets for some of these sites allows for differentiation in the classroom.


I will start with my favorite site, This site allows for dynamic selection of criteria for each handout (see 2nd photo below) such as choosing the types of coins in problems for counting out the total value. The coin images are outstanding! It also offers content up to Calculus.



Super Teacher Worksheets is often used elementary schools. It offers content in science and language arts as well. It requires a $25 annual subscription which I easily find to be worthwhile.



Common Core Sheets is very useful site if you want to find handouts for specific standards by grade level (see 2nd photo below). It offers multiple versions of each handout.




Dads Worksheets provides a large bank of worksheets – multiple versions of each worksheet.



Math Worksheets 4 Kids offers multiple versions of each worksheet and content in science and language arts. There are many worksheets that provide unique support in how the work is presented, e.g. the Ratio Slope worksheet shown in the 2nd photo below.


Visual Fractions – title speaks for itself.


Worksheet Works is my 2nd favorite. It offers options in the criteria you choose, e.g. difficulty level (2nd photo below). They also offer unique types of handouts such as a maze with math problems to solve to find the path (2nd photo).

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Base Ten Using Popsicle Sticks

I use the following method as a entry point for double digit numbers.

The photo below shows 2 packs of Popsicle sticks counted as 10 each, followed by single sticks counted as 1 each. The student counts on from 20, with the use of the scaffolded handout (photo at bottom). The handout focuses only on counting on from 20 and shows a photo of 2 of the bundles of sticks. Similar handouts involve counting on from 10 or from 30 etc.

By engaging in the actual counting, the student learns the 10s by doing. This would be followed by counting on from each 10 without the handout.

The use of Popsicle sticks is useful for 2 reasons. First, a bundle of items like shown below is more concrete than the rods for Base 10 blocks. Second, pulling packs of sticks apart of bundling 10 sticks together is an act that is concrete for students and ties into their prior knowledge regarding the grouping of objects (e,g. pack of gum).

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Addition: Concept and Mechanics

The graphic organizer below is used to show the student the steps for addition. It also addresses the concept of addition (which I have addressed previously) as an act of pulling “together” two parts to form a whole.

The student is prompted to move the first part (set of coins in this case) to the number chart. This can be completed with 1 to 1 correspondence or with subitizing (identifying the number of items without counting). Then, the student is prompted to move the second part while counting on, e.g. 7, 8 etc. (as opposed to starting from the left and counting from the first coin: 1, 2 etc.). The chart scaffolds the counting on and allows the student to see the total as a magnitude.

It is important to first teach the students the “rules of the game”, i.e. how to use the graphic organizer. To do this have the student simply move the first part to the number chart then the second part. The student can also be prompted to state the addition problem (written at the top). When the student is fluent with these steps the counting on can be implemented.

The next step would be to replace the coins with the symbolic representation, numbers.

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Multiplying and Carrying a Tens Digit

Carrying the TENS digit in a multiplication problem is a sticking point for many students. To address this, I use a task analysis approach to zero in on the step of identifying the product for the ONES as a prelude to carrying.

In the example below, 5 and 4 are in the ONES place and the product is 20. The task analysis steps involved:

  • compute the product
  • identify the digits in the product
  • identify the digit in the ONES
  • identify the digit in the TENS
  • Understand that the TENS digit must be carried to the TENS column

By creating a place holder for the product and scaffolding it to differentiate between the TENS and the ONES, the student can visualize the product. This reduces the demand placed on working memory. Once mastery with the place holder is demonstrated, it can be faded (and used as necessary as part of corrective feedback).

NOTE: I started this mini-lesson for a student with ADHD by having him warm up with problems without carrying. Also, extra line below the 60 and 20 are used for multiplying by 2 digit numbers (next in the sequence).

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