Using highlighters is one of my all-time favorite math strategies. It is hands-on and helps students hone in on exactly what the problem is asking them to do. Maybe it’s adding color to their problems. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s helping students focus in on the problem. Or both! The best part is that it can be used anytime, anywhere and in conjunction with other strategies.
Below are a few ways that highlighters can be used to help your students and children be successful in Math.
Highlighting the signs
When solving math equations, we want students to focus on the sign, so they know which operation they will be performing. One of the number one mistakes students make is not looking at the sign and simply performing an operation. It’s an easy mistake to make and we all do it, even as adults, especially when we get going quickly.
Imagine what our kids are thinking when they’ve been working on subtraction for several weeks. If you move onto another topic or give them a mixed operation activity, what will their minds still be thinking about? Subtraction. This is why it’s important that they look at the sign before they even start looking at the numbers in the equation.
Looking for the sign first and highlighting it helps them to hone in on exactly which operation they will be performing. With repeated practice they will get in the habit of knowing which operation they are performing right off the bat and therefore eliminating some of the simple mistakes they are making.
Highlighting the numbers
Once the operation has been established students can then take a look at what numbers they are working with. They will be in the frame of mind to know what will be happening to those numbers when they do finally look at them. Although highlighting the numbers may not be necessary for every student, it can be helpful for some students. Depending on the needs of your students they can:
- Use the same color for both numbers
- This works well with addition and multiplication problems as they are commutative operations and it usually doesn’t matter which order you add or multiply the numbers.
- Use a different color for each number
- This works well with subtraction and division as they are not commutative operations and the number order is important.
Highlighting in story problems
Story problems to students are like kryptonite to Superman. Once they see a bunch of words and numbers mixed together, it all of a sudden becomes a feat near impossible to accomplish. We want to get students out of that mindset and realizing that story problems are actually easy to solve. They need to know that they have all of the skills necessary to solve each and every one of their story problems; even if they struggle with reading. All it takes is more time to think about and break the problem apart.
This is when highlighting and color coding come into play. I find that students (especially students who have an aversion to reading) have much more success when they know that they can simply look for the important information in the problem and still come out successful.
Using highlighters in story problems can be done in a variety of ways. They are the same as above, but instead of highlighting a sign to know which operation they will be performing, they are highlighting the key words that tell which operation it is.
Highlighting the numbers
This helps the numbers stand out to students in what seems like a sea of words. While this helps students to know which numbers they are working with, they need to know that simply highlighting the numbers does not mean that those numbers are the end all, be all. They need to read through the problem to see what they are doing to those numbers and if any other numbers may come into play.
Highlighting the keywords
Since there is not a sign to signal to the students which operation they will be performing, highlighting the key words helps students figure out the operation. Having a chart somewhere in the room that reminds them of which key words go with which operations can be handy for the students who do not always remember.
While students will have success using any color they choose, always using the same colors for specific operations can help students make more connections. If your students have access to multiple colors, you can assign a different color for each operation. If addition is always pink, subtraction is always green, multiplication always yellow and division always orange, students can apply that knowledge to highlighting the important words in the story problem. When they see an addition sign in an equation it will be pink. When they see “in all” they will know to highlight it pink because “in all” means they are adding. Although not required, sticking with the same color can help students make more connections and retain more information. It works wonders with students who need consistency.
No highlighters? No problem! Markers, crayons and colored pencils work just the same as long as they are not a darker color that will deter from the numbers or words. If any of those materials are not an option, pens and pencils can also work. Rather than having your students completely cover the numbers, signs or words, they would circle them. The color coding aspect would be out, but calling attention to the numbers and operations they will be performing would still be in effect.
If your students use text books or any materials they cannot write on, then can still go through this same process using an app. Students take a picture of the page and upload it into an app (such as Good Notes) that allows them to use a digital highlighter or write on it. This strategy works well with classrooms that have 1 to 1 devices. If using highlighters is hands-on and engaging, using a device is so much more!