Posted September 24, 2018

Helping Primary Students Communicate Their Thinking

Written By: Deb Armitage, Exemplars Math Consultant 

It is never too early to learn how to communicate one's thinking. Since many primary students are unable to write their own responses to a problem-solving task, allowing a teacher to scribe for them is an appropriate accommodation. A student's working and assessment portfolio should be an accurate reflection of what the student knows and can do.

Students are encouraged to use diagrams, keys, tables and labels and ask for help with spelling etc. to show their mathematical thinking. Support can be given to students by having someone translate her/his solution by scribing responses. Sometimes videotaping the student's presentation of her/his solution is possible as well as taking photographs of the student's work as s/he solves the problem. Students can then add captions to the photographs. Other students may wish to audiotape their solutions.

It is appropriate to provide encouragement and ask generic questions to assist the student in clarifying her/his ideas. For example, "What is your plan?" and "Tell me how you got your answer?" are generic questions, "Make a chart" and "Your solution is incorrect" are not generic.

If the teacher feels that additional scribing is needed for complete understanding of a student's thinking, then time should be provided for the scribing to be completed.

The following guidelines for scribing should be considered:

1) Clearly indicate which information was student-documented, and which information was documented by the scribe.

2) When scribing student work, the scribe should take dictation rather than paraphrasing the student's response, even if the student's response is incorrect or shows poor understanding of the task. OR...

3) The scribe can support the student by assisting the student in staying on task, providing encouragement (without indicating if the student is correct or incorrect), and asking generic questions to assist the student in clarifying her/his ideas.

Whenever you are not sure about the appropriateness of a scribing practice, ask yourself the question, "Does this accurately demonstrate what the student knows and can do?"

A Scribing Session

Scribes will develop scribing procedures that are comfortable for their students and themselves. An example of "typical" scribing at the primary level might include:

  • "Tell me your plan." ("your thinking," "your idea," "what you did first," "what you did here," etc.)
  • "What is your answer?" (or state the question asked, "How many cookies were there?" "What was the 10th one?" "How many sides did you find?")
  • If the task asked for a particular number it is suggested that you ask the student to count to that number. For example, if the answer is six shoes and the student only put the number six on her/his paper you would ask the student to count how many shoes s/he has on the paper.
  • Scribes often ask primary students, "How did you know to stop counting, numbering, diagramming, etc.?" An example would be a pattern problem that asks, "What shape is the seventh one?" Some students will continue the pattern until they reach the end of the paper and might indicate the correct answer without understanding that they were to find the seventh one. It just happened to be the last shape on the paper.
  • Many scribes of primary students will end a scribing session by stating, "Is there anything else you would like to show or tell me?" or "Can you tell me anything else about the numbers you put on your paper or your counting?"

Again, there are no set "scribing rules." Individual scribes will use a scribing procedure that they feel clearly indicates what a student knows and is able to do. In a busy primary classroom, scribes are often not able to reach all students.

During a working portfolio task, a teacher might arrange for only some students to have their solutions scribed, some students meet with a scribe later in the day or "math buddies" come and scribe. During assessment portfolio time, all students should be given the opportunity to have their work scribed. Primary teachers often give an assessment task over a number of days so that they can scribe a smaller number of students each day. Assessment portfolio tasks should provide the student, the teacher and the parents with the most comprehensive amount of mathematical information possible around a particular concept.