Higher Order Thinking Math in 1st Grade

So my students can add and subtract within 20. They can identify the tens and ones of a 2 digit number. They can count to 120.

Good, great, GRAND....

But why are they not excelling on our standardized tests?!?

This was a question I would ask myself over and over the last few years. My students could perform the skills they needed, but when it came to APPLYING those learned skills, my students were lacking. Now, there's all sorts of reasons my students might not do well on those computerized, standardized tests... but I noticed very quickly that the questions being asked of my students were not simply "7 + 7 = ?" They were being asked real life story problems. They were being asked multi-step, higher level thinking questions that required endurance. They were HARD, but I was sure my kids could do it. I knew I had to teach them how to endure when a task at first seems too difficult. I had to ask my students to actually apply what they had learned to get a solution and provide reasoning for their thinking.

I also had to incorporate “math talks” in my classroom as often as I could. These talks got my students discussing their solutions to problems, defending their answers, and providing different ways to solve any given problem. They got my students THINKING!

Over the years I created and collected tasks that are both challenging and fun for my first graders. Each task also has a challenge question that can be used when a student solves the problem and is looking to challenge themselves a little further.

Here are some in use in my classroom:

Counter sums: Students try to use the counters to make a sum of 12 in many different ways. For this particular student, I had them draw dots on counters to manipulate and make more equations!

What's the equation: The sum is 20, what is the equation?
These two students worked together to come up with many different ways to make 20, including 3 and 4 addend equations.

 Test time! To see if these two had progressed with subtraction within 20, their task was to create a math test (with an answer key) to give to a friend! They loved getting to be the teacher and I could tell right away that they knew how to subtract within 20 easily!

 Dress Teddy! This was a fun and tricky number sense problem for my students. They had to look at the clothes and try to figure out how many different outfits they could make for the teddy bear. At first, this group was all sorts of confused. Until one of my kids said, "let's start with the pants... there's only one pair of pants." From there they could mix and match and record the different outfits. It is SO hard to bite my tongue and not guide them, but if you can hold back long enough it is amazing to see them persevere to get the answers. They feed off one another and it is pretty cool to watch!

I created 8 different tasks (which each have an additional *challenge* task) for each of the following domains:
Number sense
Place Value
Geometry & Measurement
Time & Money

Each task comes in 3 different forms as well. There is a printable version that you can see above with the question on it. There is a guided printable version which is the same, but has guiding questions to help your students complete the problem, and a task card version to print, laminate and pass out to groups.

I use all three versions of the tasks in my room. We use the task cards in groups with large posters for students to show their work. When we split up into groups like this, I choose tasks that are appropriate for each group based on their needs. I also make sure to put aside time for the groups to explain their work and their answers.

In small groups, I will often use the printable versions (guided or not based on their ability levels) so I can observe their thinking and guide them as necessary through the problem solving process.
However I choose to use the tasks, I make sure that talking is a HUGE part of the task. I often ask questions that start with these stems:
-Why did you ______________________?
-What if you __________________________________?
-Is there another way you could’ve ___________________________?
-How do you know _______________________________?

I love to see the discussions that occur when my students walk me through their process. They show their peers new ways of thinking that help them in later tasks. They also impress me over and over again!

If you think these would be great for you students, head on over and check them out:
These higher level thinking type of problems encourage students to work together and have great discussions surrounding the answers. They provide students with an alternate way to show what they have learned and also allow students to use their skills in real life situations. #math #firstgrade #Higherorderthinking

You can download the preview for more examples of the tasks :)


  1. This looks great. I am adding it to my wishlist!

  2. This product would be awesome for incorporating those skills into higher level thinking but how do you incorporate this when you have a scripted math program as well? We use Saxon and have found it to do just what you said - teaches the skills but the kids still don't have the critical thinking aspect they need to be successful.

    you can email me at ashleyaevans@hotmail.com

    The Weekly Sprinkle

  3. Love it! I'm also a first grade teacher who is passionate about high level math thinking skills! I always love finding fellow math junkies!

    Whitney @ The First Grade Roundup

  4. I just picked up this packet! Pinning your post for reading & rereading -I'm really excited about incorporating these ideas! Thank you, Jen

  5. I LOVE this and am sharing it in my blog post tonight on math discussion strategies! Thank you! :)


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