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Developing Number Sense in Math Centers

The goal of my teaching is to meet each student at their Just Right Level. This means that the majority of my math and literacy instruction occurs in small group.  My first grade team has been working very hard to create a model that balances targeted small group instruction and meaningful independent activities.   This seemed rather daunting at first (and by first, I mean for the entire first year I attempted this model.)  However, this year I feel like I have finally found a rhythm that has made this format of teaching manageable and effective.  

Forming The Groups
Although our district uses a published curriculum, I use assessments from Kathy Richardson's "Assessing Math Concepts" to guide my instruction, particularly the "Hiding Assessment".  This assessment helps me understand if students can recognize the parts of a number to ten.  For example, I will show a student 5 unifix cubes.  Then I will hide some under my hand, showing the student the remaining two.  I ask the student, "How many are hiding under my hand?"  I do this with all possible combinations of 5 to determine the students fluency with these number combinations.  If the student is able to correctly share those combinations, then I would move on to combinations of 6.  When the student starts to answer incorrectly, or needs substantial time to think about their answer, I consider this their "working number."  I try to relate this to the task of attaining a students instructional reading level.

Foundational Activities & Games
I don't always group students by the "working number," but in the beginning of the year it was a great place to start.  For the first 6 weeks of school, this is where I introduce routines and a variety of activities and games that we will use throughout the year.  Similar to literacy centers, the format of these activities stays the same, but they become increasingly more difficult as students increase their "working number."  Here are some of the activities in action below.

Kathy Richardson's Build A Floor from Developing Number Concepts

Flip For It!  Students work to match combinations to the "working number."  For example, if a student's working number is 6, I would put out a deck ten-frame cards with numbers 0-6.  Students would put all cards face down, and, similar to a game of memory/concentration, they flip pairs of cards.  If they flip two cards that add up to 6, they get to keep their pair (e.g. 2 and a 4.)  However, if their pair does not add up to 6, they must flip them back over.  All of my students love this game, no matter their "working number!"

I like to use Kathy Richardson's Number Shapes from Developing Number Concepts, as it supports the skill of subitizing while working on addition and subtraction.  Depending on the student's "working number," they will receive their corresponding number shape board.  The student above is working with the number 6.  The student rolls a 6 sided die, and places that many cubes on their number shape board.  Then, they fill the rest of the board with another color shape.  Students then write an addition sentence to represent their board on their recording sheet.

Here students are using the same Number Shape board, but to practice subtraction.  Students use unifix cubes to fill their board.  This student is working with the number 7.  Students can either use a standard 6-sided die, or an 8-sided die with the numbers 0-7.  Depending on the roll, the student removes that many unifix cubes from their number shape board.  The student records the image of their board on their recording sheet, as well as a subtraction sentence to represent their board.

I have started giving students the numbers 1-20 on a reference chart, as I have many students that are still reversing their numbers.  It has made a HUGE difference.

While I like to have students focused on their "working number," I also feel that it is important to give them occasional exposure to many numbers and their combinations.  My class named this activity, "Build A City."  I have multiple versions of this board (some focus on numbers 1-6, the one shown above focuses on 1-10, and others are 2-12.)  Students roll the dice that correspond to their board, and show each of the addends (towers) in separate colors placed under their sum.  Whichever column, or "street" that is filled first wins!  My students have also extended the learning in this activity into the clean-up process.  As they break apart their towers, they state the number sentence.  For example, if they are breaking apart a set of towers on street 7, they have to state the number sentence it represents (e.g. 2 oranges plus 5 whites equals 7.)

Here are recording sheets for numbers 5-9 if you would like to try some of these activities in your classroom!  Enjoy!

Next time... I will try and highlight how I determine what to teach in my small groups,  as well as strategies I've used to organize the independent centers to avoid pulling out my hair!


  1. This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing your work.
    The 8 page for number shapes is linked to 7.

  2. I agree. Love these, except the 8 page link takes you to the 7 page.