Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

BCTF New Teachers’ Conf: Seeing Dots February 27, 2016

100 dot array picI am delighted to be here in Richmond, BC, today presenting at the BCTF’s New Teachers’ Conference. I am doing a similar workshop to what I did at the Calgary City Teachers’ Convention two weeks ago, but it is well worth the repeat in this city!

I cannot say enough how important it is for students to be able to visualize and represent numbers in many forms. This tool, the 100-dot array, offers one tool for students to be able to use regularly and thus internalize the number relationships that can be seen when using it.

As before, I am making the handouts available here for downloading:

I will upload the extra large dot sheet (a quarter portion of the regular sized one) which can be made into a poster-sized array once I am home with access to my scanner. Watch for that in the next few days!

Let me know how things go with your students!

Mathematically yours,



Calgary City Teachers’ Convention: Seeing Dots February 10, 2016

100 dot array picThe 100 Dot Array remains one of my favourite tools for helping students visualize numbers. This session at the CCTC focuses mainly on its use with students in grades 2 and 3, although it can be used at many other grade levels. We will be talking about the best way to introduce the tool to students, showing an early activity to help with general number sense, and using the number in problem solving situations. A variety of problem are included to show its diverse use.

Here are the downloads available from the session:

Please let me know how it goes with using the 100 dot arrays with your students! I love to hear about kids using tools and strategies in math.

Mathematically yours,



Math in Nature July 15, 2014

Filed under: General Math,Parents — Focus on Math @ 3:03 pm
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Pinecone fib pic 1When you are spending time in the outdoors, one of the mathematical things you can look for is the connection in nature to the Fibonacci number sequence. Of course, one must know the sequence in order to recognize when it shows up in nature, and it is as follows:
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…
Do you see the pattern? It begins, with 0 and 1, and after that each successive number is the sum of the two previous numbers. Thus the number after 34 is 55, derived by 21 + 34 = 55.

The sequence shows up in nature in a variety of ways. For many flowers, the number of petals that they have is a Fibonacci number. Looking at the bottom of pinecones, the number of spirals formed, whether left spirals or right spirals, is a Fibonacci number. This is true for pineapples and sunflowers as well. The number of seeds found in fruit is often a Fibonacci number. The next time you are eating an apple or orange, or squeezing lemons for lemonade, stop and count the seeds! Even when looking at how plants branch off a stalk or grow their leaves we can see the Fibonacci sequence.

Click here for one great site for delving into this further— there are many others out there, too!
Happy number hunting!
Mathematically yours,

Pinecone fib pic 2  tree branches Fib pic


Early Counting: the Foundation of Math May 12, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 9.55.18 AMThe meaning attached to counting is the most important idea on which all other number concepts are developed.

Counting Involves at Least Two Separate Skills:

  • A child must be able to produce the standard list of counting words in order: “one, two, three, etc.” This must be learned by rote memory.
  • The child must be able to connect this sequence in a one-to-one manner with the items in the set being counted. In other words, each item must get one and only one count. This important understanding is called one-to-one correspondence.

Meaning Attached to Counting:

There is a difference between being able to count as explained above and knowing what the counting means. When we count a set, the last number word used represents the magnitude or the cardinality of the set. When children understand that the last count word names the quantity of the set, they are said to have the cardinality principle.

Give a child a set of objects and ask, “How many”? After counting, if the child does not name how many are there (as, “There are 7 of them,”), then ask again, “How many?” If a child can answer without recounting, it is clear he or she is using the cardinal meaning of the counting word. Recounting the entire set again usually means that the child interprets the question “How many?” as a command to count.

Almost any counting activity will help children develop cardinality.

  • Have the child count several sets where the number of objects is the same but the objects are very different in size. Ask the child to talk about this.
  • Have the child count a set of objects, and them rearrange the objects. Ask, “How many now?” (If the child sees no reason to count again, likely the child has a good sense of number and has developed cardinality.)

Happy counting!

Mathematically yours,



Seeing Dots: NCTM 2014 New Orleans Presentation April 11, 2014

Screen shot 100 dot arrayI am excited to be here in New Orleans at the 2014 NCTM conference. Yesterday was a great day of sessions for me, and I am delighted to be presenting a session in just a couple of hours! “Seeing Dots: Using Arrays to Add, Subtract, Multiply and Divide” will focus on all the different ways the 100 dot array can be used to help students visualize and represent numbers — something which leads to a deeper understanding of numbers.

I am posting the handout from the workshop as well as links to 100 dot arrays is the different sizes.

I hope you try using the 100 dot array in your elementary classroom!

Download the conference handout here.

Download a 100 dot large array here.

Download 4 arrays on a page here.

Download 6 arrays on a page here.

Download 12 arrays on a page here.

Mathematically yours,



Number of the Day – Level III March 10, 2014

Num of day tally picToday I am posting the third Number of the Day sheet. I cannot overstate that I believe that elementary school students should be involved with numbers everyday they are in school!

Level III is one to primarily use with numbers to 100. The section “100 chart tic-tac-toe” will not be familiar to most. I had devised that math game based on the positioning of a number on the 100 chart. For instance, if 26 is written in the centre of the chart, then the middle line is to show one more and one less than 26. (25, 26, 27 across). Above the middle number is 10 less, in this case 16. Below 26 is 10 more, 36 in this case. The corners can then be filled in using the horizontal or vertical relationships already established. (For more on the use of 100 chart tic-tac-toe, see my previous blog post.)

When using 100 dot arrays, I have students use highlighters to colour the numbers. I also stress marking efficiently – we do NOT colour each individual dot; rather a line or partial line is coloured with a swipe of the marker.

At every level breaking apart the number of the day is an important component of the sheet. Quoting John Van de Walle once again, “To conceptualize a number as being made up of two or more parts is the most important relationship that can be developed about numbers.” [Van de Walle, J. and Folk, S. (2005). Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally (Canadian Edition). Pearson: Toronto.]

I did have one teacher ask a question about the breaking apart section. She was used to having students only break apart numbers according to tens and ones. Thus 26 could be broken apart as 20 and 6 or 10 and 16. But sometimes it is easier to work with numbers when we break them in ways other than ten and ones. Consider the thinking that might happen when adding 26 + 27. If a student knows that 26 comes apart as 25 an 1 and that 27 comes apart as 25 and 2, it is easy to put the 25′s together to get 50, then add the 1 and the 2 —total 53. Students who use the 100 dot array often get especially comfortable with 25′s. Also consider adding 97 and 36. If a student notices that 97 is just 3 away from 100, it makes sense to split 36 as 3 and 33. Breakng apart in tens and ones are definitely useful, but so are other “break-aparts”. If students do not practice this kind of thinking they are not likely to ever do it!

I had one teacher here in my district that was using this sheet and her students were getting tired of making tallies for large numbers. So I am including a second English version of the sheet asking for equations for the number instead.

Again, a French version is offered as well with thanks to my friend and colleague Lynn St. Louis for her translation.numero du jour III pic

 Download the English version (tallies) here.

Download the English version (equations) here.

Download the French version here.

Mathematically yours,


Num of Day III eqn pic


Use What You Know to Figure Out What You Don’t Know March 7, 2014

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 10.36.15 AMI was working with some students this week who were learning their “basic facts” in multiplication. These are generally considered to be those one-digit times one-digit problems that we use when we figure out the products of multi-digit problems. I was going over some different strategies and ways of thinking that can be used to help students learn those facts.

There are a number of strategies that can help in the learning of basic facts, but one phrase sums up many of those individual strategies: “Use what you know to figure out what you don’t know.”

This phrase actually applies to FAR more than just the learning of basic facts. The truth, however, is that often we condition students to NOT think for themselves in mathematics. We have a long tradition of teaching by telling: the “here’s how to do it now go practice 50” method. In reality, that kind of math lesson programs students to think that unless someone has told them “the way” to do something (and, of course, they must remember exactly how to follow the directions of “the way”). If they forget, they are stymied and cannot know how to proceed. They remain in their “stuck” position until someone comes to rescue them with “the way”.

It is far better to regularly encourage students with the idea that when they are stuck, they need to stop and think about the things they DO know that can be applied. We might ask questions (and teach them to ask themselves) such as these:

  • What might be something similar that you do know?
  • If the problem had smaller or simpler numbers, how would you try to solve it?
  • Why did you choose to do it that way?
  • What is important in the question?
  • Is there a pattern?
  • Is there a way to record what you have done so far so you a pattern might be noticed?
  • Can you think of another way to do that?
  • Does this remind you of another problem you have done?

In the case of basic facts, “Use what you know to figure out what you don’t know,” might look like this: a student cannot remember 6 x 8. But 5 x 8 is known. So, knowing that 5 groups of 8 is 40, he need only add one more group of 8 to have the needed 6 groups of 8; thus 40 + 8 = 48 is the solution to the unknown fact.

Students may need practice in doing such strategies, but the important thing is that there ARE strategies to help. It removes the case of having to rely solely on memory and sitting there stuck if memory fails.

What are you doing in your classroom today that encourages students to help themselves when they are stuck? Maybe post the title phrase for them (and model for them how it looks): “Use what you know to figure out what you don’t know.”

Strategies make a difference in student learning!

Mathematically yours,