Getting Started


Let me say this first and foremost... The first several weeks are critical in correctly teaching students the procedures and expectations for guided math. Not following through or cutting corners can lead to frustration and guided math failure. As most teachers know the key to a good system is practice, practice, practice. As with your literacy stations-centers; you wouldn't just sent kids to the station and say, "Have fun!" You teach and practice what is expected of them, for weeks.

Typically I introduce guided math the very first day of school. I gather the kids around and say that they are about to experience math different than what they might have in the past.

I briefly describe what the guided math block of time will look like.

- You will be in math groups. Groups might change over the course of the school year.
- Each math time you will rotate through 4 stations.
-You will spend about 15-20 minutes at each station.
- You have a different task to accomplish at each station. I then explain each one; card station, game station, independent work station, and lesson with me.

At this point I only introduce one station at a time. I usually start with the card station because they games are easy to teach and easy to model correct behaviors. Here is what a typical introduction would look like.

"Students today we are going to learn our very first station! Today we will be practicing the math card station. Remember this is the station where you get to play card games that help you out with your math skills. I will tell you what card game to play each day. One day a week I will let you have free choice!"

I label the top of a piece chart paper : MATH CARD STATION

I then make a chart.

"Boys and girls let's take a look at this chart. I thought we could start by brainstorming some good things that you would expect to see from your classmates when they are at the card station."

Students start the list: 

1. Take Turns
2. Play Fairly
3. Clean Up All Materials
4. Put Back All Materials Where They Belong
5. Get Started Right Away
6. Work Quietly
7. Play The WHOLE Time

Notice that I tend to use positive statements, not statements that begin with Don't or Never.  Let the students guided you, you can always rephrase what they say to fit one of your core non-negotiable station rules. These are just a few staple statements that I want to include on my chart. Students can usually think of a couple other important good behaviors.

"So now we are going to have three students model what they think working at the card station would look like."

I give a verbal overview to those three students as to what they are going to do first. Go get the cards, go to the designated card playing area, get started right away, play nicely, clean up and return materials when I say stop.

I then have those students give a short (no more than 2 min) overview of what the whole process looks like. The go and pretend they are at that station. I then call, "Ok, card station is over." (or whatever system you use to indicate it is switch time or the end of math).

The students come back to the group. We look at our chart. I go down the list calling out each behavior. Students give me a thumbs up or thumbs down to show if the group demonstrated that behavior

We practice this again, each time using a different set of students.  I usually do this no more than three times. Some methods will have you demonstrate the wrong way.  After a few years of doing so, I began to change my mind on this.  I don't want student to practice the wrong way and learning wrong behaviors.  I think it is important to model the correct behaviors and the correct expectations.

At the end of all this I then introduce their first math card game. Something simple, very easy to play and to teach. I then give students a chance to work with a partner or two and show me how they all can practice the good behaviors on our chart.

This sequence goes on for several days. So the next day, this is what it looks like in short review...

-Gather kids, ask them if they remember what some good things are that we should see when we are at the math card station.
-Review chart and get any that they may have overlooked
-Have group model the correct expectations
-Show new card game
-Have students practice

Yes, this does take a good chunk of time and will each math time until you are ready to begin stations. I follow this same format when I introduce all four stations. At the end all four stations will have its own chart that can be shown somewhere in the room for student reference.

Now when you are ready, go begin introducing the math game station. I usually do a quick review of expected behaviors at the card station and then introduce the game station.

The next day same thing.

A few days in, I will split the time between practicing card and then game. Really you set the time on this one, how long you want them to play and practice the games (10 mins max to begin with I would say, build your time stamina).

I know some of you are thinking where does fitting in the actual math manual lessons work when introducing stations. I teach the lesson first, then do the practice of the stations.

This is just a guideline on how to get it started. A lot of you have your own ways and tips and tricks you have learned throughout the years. Use it! Do what works for you, but remember like I said at the top, guided math will not be successful unless you take the time to teach behavior and model them over and over again.


  1. It is so hard to begin by teaching your students your expectation. In the back of your head you keep thinking...but I have so much to cover. Yet, once the system is learned, and the small group teaching begins it is worth it. I too believe in small group guided math. I've taught it that way when I've taught split or combination classes and it influenced my teaching just like it did Mary. Now, I'm an instructional math coach, and I mentor teachers that work in combination/multi-age classrooms. When I explain the system, I see excitement in teachers eyes, but when they try to pull all the parts together to make it actually happen, they don't give the beginning or teaching the routine enough time. It think Mary's posting really hits home for me... step by step instructions and explicit teaching of what is expected. Deborah/The Math Lady

  2. Wonderful! I am a first year teacher who just started this last month. So far so good! I love teaching them in the small felxable groups!

  3. I am really looking forward to putting small group math into place in my classroom! I teach small groups in reading and the kids have really shown lots of growth! Thanks so much for sharing your ideas!

  4. You're quite welcome and good luck with implementing. You are going to love small group math!

  5. I can't wait to begin the new school year with an organized approach for teaching guided math. Thank you for all the helpful info!

  6. I plan to implement guided math this school year (begins 8/18). We only have 50 minutes for math, however. How do I fit it all in? If I have 16-22 students, I'm having problems figuring out how to fit it all in. I have been doing guided reading for the past several years, but we have 120 minutes for that!

  7. Thanks for all the tips. We are starting Guided Math at our campus and I am looking forward to all the ideas, suggestions, and discussions on this blog :)

  8. What do you do for homework? Since I teach 5th grade, they need a bit more homework.

  9. I am excited to implement guided math. I know from teaching first grade that it does pay off in the end if you very diligently and consistently get all the behaviors down in the beginning.

  10. This sounds wonderful, but I have a question...I teach 3rd and 4th grades at a very small private school in a combined class. Is this something I could implement with only 7 students? Thank you!

    1. Did this work well for you? I'm going to teach 1st & 2nd combined this fall. About 13 kids total.

  11. Wonderful use of the Daily 5 system for math! Thanks for laying it out this way. Do you have a good source for Math Card games? I wonder if there are really enough engaging games (with purpose) to keep kids busy all year long.

  12. I was wondering if you have different math centers every day?

  13. I love that you shared this. Thank you. I attempted Guided Math and failed miserably :( I am hoping you may be able to give me info/advice.
    First, my kids are very familiar with guided grouping, using the materials, switching, cleaning, etc. They know that and they know how to play the games, as well.
    I guess part of my question is: How in the world do you plan? Doesn't this take far MORE time for planning?
    Secondly: Are the groups based on pre-testing? About how often do they switch? By skill? By day? Week? Marking Period? Unit?
    Third - how does your OVERALL math block break down? I think the part I might have been missing is what would be called the "mini-lesson" in reading and writing. So - as an example. If the unit is measurement and the lesson is measuring to the nearest 1/4 inch...what would my math block look like?
    Finally, are all of the kids getting the same homework?
    THank you a million and a half!!!

    1. These are all questions that I have been wondering as well! Was there a reply somewhere else that I did not see?

    2. With common core lessons in my 4/5 combo class, it's hard to find the time to balance the stations into 15-20 minutes when lessons take 40-an hour sometimes... What do I do when this happens?

    3. I find that I can't 'do' guided math every day. Usually the first day is for the large class lesson which includes: a minds on type of task, a discussion about the 'main idea' or 'big idea' of the week and then introducing the stations. That way, the activities or stations are already introduced and on the second day we can go ahead with a mini lesson and rotations. My last day (usually the Friday) is spent on maybe one last rotation, then an assessment piece. Hope this helps!

    4. I find that I can't 'do' guided math every day. Usually the first day is for the large class lesson which includes: a minds on type of task, a discussion about the 'main idea' or 'big idea' of the week and then introducing the stations. That way, the activities or stations are already introduced and on the second day we can go ahead with a mini lesson and rotations. My last day (usually the Friday) is spent on maybe one last rotation, then an assessment piece. Hope this helps!

  14. Thank you so much for sharing in this way! I truly appreciate it and all of the work you've done.

  15. Was there ever a response to Twinkletoes? I teach 5th and we are departmentalizing next year. I love the idea of guided math, but I am so nervous about trying it. I am also very confused about what to give for homework so that I don't have to kill myself grading 100-120 math papers a night. Anyone able to tell me what has worked for them?

  16. I teach 5th grade and we ability group. I'll teach my homeroom for the first 3-4 weeks, then I'll get a whole different bunch of kids that seem to be working at the same level. How do I start guided math that far into the year and still stay on the district's timeline for math? How much time do you allot for guided math? We only have about 70 min. for math and I'm not sure how to fit in the warm-up, going over homework, the actual lesson, and then centers.

  17. I implemented guided math today for the first time. It took me about 2 weeks to prepare, but it was well worth it! Each group went sooothly. I was able to give the extra attention to my low group (Blue Group). Thank you so much for all your suggestions and assistance!!

  18. I'm beginning to implement this in my classroom with 4 groups and I was hoping to get some feedback, much like Twinkletoes questions. Can anyone share how they plan and how much time you dedicate to each? I am thinking I'll do whole group and 2 small groups a day. Please share any tips or hints you have. Thanks!!

  19. Hi-I'm teaching a small K/1 class this year, with mainly kindergartners. I've taught 4/5 and middle school for 5 years. I'm lucky enough to be able to choose my own curriculum but am not sure what to pick for my group. I would love suggestions!

  20. Hi Mary, I love your site and I am starting to formally practice guided math in my classroom. I have worked with small groups in my classroom in the past, but would like to take it to the next level! My question involves hw check of the previous night's hw. How and where in the rotation do you address hw? Do you check the hw during the teacher time? With 60 mins in my class, I plan to do 3 stations 15 mins each. That leaves 15 mins for "mental math/number talks" basic intro of the lesson...and hw check! I am an experienced teacher..but 15 mins to do all I described seems impossible! Any suggestions? Thanks for your time!

  21. Hi there!

    Thank you for all of this helpful information...I was feeling very lost in getting started with guided math, but I think your website is going to be EXTREMELY helpful! Quick question for do you decide how to group your students?


    Toria Harvey

  22. Any creative ideas on how to address 2 grade levels/curriculums in your mini lessons? (We use everyday math.)

  23. When implementing this, how do you teach the lesson first if you are teaching two lessons?

  24. Hi Mary! I am just about to tackle a 4/5 split and have been thankful for your suggestions here. You mention the Daily 5. What is that?

  25. Hi Mary! I am just about to tackle a 4/5 split and have been thankful for your suggestions here. You mention the Daily 5. What is that?