Word walls in math discussions raise student achievement

HiResFor many math teachers, leading a discussion in math class is a novel and challenging role but one that takes high-priority in current math instruction practices.

What teaching practices for in leading discourse are most effective in raising math achievement?

According to a new study in the Journal of Advanced Academics funded by the National Science Foundation, K-2 students whose teachers used 2 discourse practices  (having students construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others and supporting mathematical vocabulary with the use of a word wall) scored higher than controls in one or both math measures, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) Mathematics subtest and the grade-level-specific Open-Response Assessment.

This study was part of an effort to develop and examine 6 mathematics curriculum units. Kindergarten students in the intervention group scored significantly higher than the control group on both measures and Grade 1 and 2 students in the intervention group scored higher on the Open-Response Assessment, but not on the ITBS compared with controls, researchers report.

Participants in the study included 12 teachers and 210 students from kindergarten, 12 teachers and 186 students from Grade 1, and 10 teachers and 164 students from Grade 2. Each teacher in the study was observed an average of 10 times (see teacher observation scales below) to check on fidelity of implementation during field testing of curriculum units.


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 Researchers used the following observation scale to monitor teachers’ use of best practices in mathematics discourse.

Teacher Observation Scale—Verbal Communication items

  1. The teacher focused on all appropriate major mathematical ideas and student ideas provided the foundation for the discussions
  2. Revoicing by teacher to clarify and make sense of student ideas. Students were asked if their ideas were interpreted accurately
  3. Repeat/rephrase was used to validate student ideas, get students to express themselves clearly, and/or call attention to ideas. Students were asked if their ideas were interpreted accurately
  4. All or most students contributed to discussions
  5. Adding on was used so that students can provide more insight into or extend the discussion
  6. Wait time was used to let students organize their thoughts after a question is asked and/or they are called on to answer
  7. Partner talk was used to encourage students to consider one another’s ideas and/or further develop their reasoning
  8. The discourse encouraged students to grapple with the mathematics
  9. “Agree/disagree and why” approach was used to have students apply their understanding to someone else’s thought and defend their position

Observation Scale—Mathematical Language Items

Use of a word wall in class was also noted by observers.

  • The word wall was was used interactively
  • The teacher or students referred to the word wall
  • Teacher encouraged students to use correct mathematical language

Teachers’ fidelity of implementation score also predicted students achievement gains.“Although engaging students in verbal communications is a recommended instructional practice in mathematics education, its use is varied,” the researchers write. “For example, approximately 36% of teachers indicated that they used critical discourse in their instruction very frequently, 24% frequently, 27% sometimes, and 13% seldom.”

“Examining the Relationship Between Teachers’ Instructional Practices and Students’ Mathematics Achievement,” by Janine Firmender et al., Journal of Advanced Academics, 2014, Volume 25, Number 3, pp. 214-236.

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