Sunday / July 21

Creating Clarity in the Early Childhood Mathematics Classroom

When learners can articulate what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they know they will be successful, they possess clarity about their learning (see, Almarode & Vandas, 2018; Fisher, Frey, Amador, & Assof, 2018). Clarity in teaching and learning makes a significant impact on the learning growth for students in any classroom and also serves as a foundation for further learning. Based on Hattie’s Visible Learning research (2009, 2012) and his quantification of the influences on learning, an effect size of 0.40 equates to one year’s learning growth in one year’s time. With an average effect size of 0.75, teacher clarity results in almost twice the average effect size of one year of formal schooling. What better place to have this high impact on our learners than the early childhood mathematics classroom.

What Is Clarity?

Hattie (2009) describes clarity as communicating the learning intentions and success criteria so that students can identify where they are going, how they are progressing, and where they will go next, thus providing students enough clarity to own their own learning. A learning intention describes what it is that we want our students to learn (effect size = 0.68). Success criteria specify the necessary evidence students will produce to show their progress toward the learning intention (effect size = 1.13).

But how do we effectively communicate clarity to our youngest learners when they cannot yet read and when they are working on a complex network of learning outcomes (e.g., social-emotional, psychomotor, behavioral, etc.)? This can be navigated by adapting the way teachers communicate clarity:

  1. Use visuals alongside academic vocabulary in the context of learning. Have students articulate what they are learning and connect multiple representations with academic vocabulary.
  2. Demonstrate the high-order thinking skills and processes by modeling (i.e., thinking aloud) the connections between what they are learning and why.
  3. Explicitly teach meta-cognitive skills through questioning so that learners are guided to think about their own learning.
  4. Finally, provide visual rubrics, checklists, exemplars, and models to support learners as they begin to monitor their learning progress and know what success looks like.

What This Looks Like

In Alisha Demchak’s kindergarten class, students are learning to investigate and describe part-whole relationships for numbers up to 10 using multiple representations. As she introduces the learning intention and success criteria, Mrs. Demchak uses visuals alongside academic vocabulary, modelling of high-order thinking skills, questioning to teach meta-cognitive skills, and exemplars to support self-regulation.

Learning Intention: I am learning part-whole relationships with numbers.

Success Criteria:

  1. I can identify the parts that make a number.
  2. I can use the terms compose and decompose.
  3. I can represent the parts of a number in different ways.

To support her young mathematicians, Mrs. Demchak provides visuals to accompany the success criterion:

Mrs. Demchak engages her students in high-order thinking to make sense of the learning intention and success criteria by facilitating their analysis of the anchor chart. “Looking at our work about the number 5, where do you see evidence that we can identify the parts that make a number?” (the first criterion). Students share their noticings of the ways 5 is broken into two parts on the rekenrek, ten-frame, cubes, domino, table, and equation. Students wonder if a number can be broken into more than two parts, posing their own mathematically rigorous and rich question.

Next, she thinks aloud to model ways to demonstrate the second criterion, “I remember from this example (pointing to the vocabulary terms and image) that compose means put together and decompose means break apart. In the table, we show a lot of ways to decompose 5 into two parts, like 2 and 3 or 1 and 4. On the ten-frame, we show both decomposing 5 into 3 and 2 and also composing by putting the 3 and 2 dots together to make one row of 5. We’re wondering if 5 can be decomposed into more than two parts. What’s another way you could describe our work using the terms compose and decompose?” Students practice using the academic vocabulary as they share their thinking.

Finally, Mrs. Demchak asks, “Were we successful representing parts of the number 5 in different ways? What evidence do you see?” (the third criterion). Students turn and talk with a partner to explain their thinking, pointing to the chart examples frequently. They extend the possibilities by sharing other manipulatives that could represent part-whole relationships. Mrs. Demchak’s questions teach meta-cognitive skills while the anchor chart provides students with an example of what success looks like in order to support their self-monitoring.

Closing Remarks

Clarity about learning is not an opportunity to increase student learning only accessible to “older grade-levels.”  Instead, ensuring that we clearly organize instruction, explain content, provide examples and guided practice, and assess learning is paramount in our young learners.  A key characteristic of a high-impact early childhood mathematics classroom is clarity that leads to learners taking ownership of their learning journey. What differs for our youngest learners is the way in which this clarity is communicated.

Interested in seeing more examples of effectively communicating clarity in early childhood classrooms? Check out Teaching Mathematics in the Visible Learning Classroom, K-2.


Almarode, J., & Vandas, K. (2018). Clarity for learning: Five essential practices that empower students and teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fendick, F. (1990). The correlation between teacher clarity of communication and student achievement gain: A meta-analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Amador, O., & Assof, J. (2018). The teacher clarity playbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. A. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. A. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on teachers. New York: Routledge.

Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella.

Kateri Thunder, Ph.D. served as an inclusive, early childhood educator, an Upward Bound educator, a mathematics specialist, an assistant professor of mathematics education at James Madison University, and Site Director for the Central Virginia Writing Project (a National Writing Project site at the University of Virginia). Kateri is a member of the Writing Across the Curriculum Research Team with Dr. Jane Hansen, co-author of The Promise of Qualitative Metasynthesis for Mathematics Education, and co-creator of The Math Diet. Currently, Kateri has followed her passion back to the classroom. She teaches in an at-risk PreK program, serves as the PreK-4 Math Lead for Charlottesville City Schools, and works as an educational consultant. Kateri is happiest exploring the world with her best friend and husband, Adam, and her family. Kateri can be reached at

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