Guest Post – Problem Solving: The Heart of Singapore Math

This article originally was featured in the fall 2018 issue of St. Anne’s-Belfield School’s Perspectives magazine and is republished with both the school and author’s permission.

The author, Sara Kronstain, has almost a decade of experience guiding elementary and middle school mathematicians to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.  She teaches fifth-grade math and is the Kindergarten-6th Grade Math Department Chair at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Problem-Solving: The Heart of Singapore Math

When I was in school, my math classes were typical of what one would expect a “traditional” math class to look like. I remember sitting in my elementary and middle school classes, watching as my teachers modeled problem after problem. The class would listen and then practice many of the same types of problems in our notebooks. While this type of teaching may achieve the immediate goal of learning a mathematical procedure, it does not guide students to reach an integral part of learning mathematics: problem-solving (Cai & Lester, 2010).

Singapore Math is comprised of a framework with problem-solving being the center of learning mathematics. This framework is built around five key components – metacognition, process, attitudes, skills, and concepts – all being of equal importance in developing mathematical problem solving in students. Whereas traditional math classes may place primary importance on developing skills and concepts in students, the additional three components of metacognition (self-regulation of learning), process (reasoning, making connections, and applying knowledge), and attitudes (perseverance, confidence, interest) are all key to developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in students (Ministry of Education Singapore, 2006).

A typical Singapore Math lesson is taught with a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach. Where many of my lessons as a math student began in the abstract stage (solving equations), the concrete and pictorial stages allow students to create and solidify their own understanding of a topic. The concrete stage refers to using hands-on materials to model a mathematical situation.  The pictorial stage consists of diagrams and other visuals, thus building students’ learning in a tangible way (Maths No Problem!, 2018). The concrete and pictorial stages allow students to understand why math works the way it does before learning the procedure of how to solve using an algorithm.

Most Singapore Math lessons begin with an anchor task, allowing students to explore these three stages. The anchor task is a question that allows students the chance to deeply explore a topic and develop multiple methods for solving a problem (Ban Har, 2013). Let us say, for example, a group of fifth graders were posed the problem, “The distance of a race is 3km. Lily ran two-fifths of the distance. How many kilometers did Lily run?”  Students would be given the opportunity to freely explore this question by using manipulatives such as fraction bars, fractions circles, or paper (for folding) along with writing materials. Here are a few examples of possible student responses to this question:

Method: Repeated Addition

Add ⅖ + ⅖ + ⅖Students may use fraction bars, fraction circles, or pictures.  Students become familiar with the phrase “3 groups of ⅖”.


Method: Bars

Three boxes are each split into fifths. Two of each of the fifths in all three boxes are shaded in.  The shaded parts are added together.


Method: Bar Model

A bar with the length of 3 wholes can be split into five parts.  Each part has a value of ⅗. Then add ⅗ + ⅗ .

Method: Addition with Fractions

Three boxes are split into 5 equal groups, first by placing one half in each group. Then, split the leftover half into five parts (tenths). Each group will have one half of a whole and one tenth of a whole. Combine two groups by adding two halves to two tenths.


In this example, the repeated addition method reinforces addition with fractions, while the last method has students thinking about and manipulating fractions in a much more complex way.  Thinking back to the five key components of Singapore Math, students in this example are refining their process of learning operations with fractions by making connects across operations.  It is powerful that these responses are coming from students, as they are building their understanding of math through collaboration with their peers. In sharing methods, listening to other’s methods, and processing others methods, students are also developing their metacognition. This question could also be modified and challenge students to problem solve in an even deeper way. “What if the total distance was ½ km?  What if the total distance was 3 ½ km?”  Students can then go back to the concrete, pictorial, and abstract stages and continue to build on their problem-solving abilities.

At the end of the day the primary purpose of this math lesson, or any math lesson for that matter, is not simply to learn how to multiply fractions by a whole number. The most important takeaways are the critical thinking, questioning, collaboration, and problem-solving that happens among students. Teachers are not preparing students to go out into a world where they will simply be asked to recite an algorithm. While a goal is for each child to develop a deep love of math, the biggest hope is that students learn to ask questions, logically think through problems, and make sense of the world around them.



Ban Har, Yeap.  (2013, June 13).  Singapore Math at the Blake School, Hopkins, MN.  Retrieved from

Cai, Jinfa, & Lester, Frank. (2010, April 8).  Problem Solving. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  Retrieved from

Kaur, Berinderjeet.  (2018, March 29).  Building the Maths house: Singapore’s curriculum framework.  Oxford Education Blog.  Retrieved from

Ministry of Education Singapore.  (2006).  Mathematics Syllabus Primary.  Retrieved from

Maths No Problem! (2018). Concrete Pictorial Abstract.  Retrieved from

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Ask the Experts: What’s the best way to organize my math manipulatives?

The answer to this question is complicated. So much of how to organize materials is dependent upon personal preference with procedures and arrangement within your classroom. One thing that I can say is true in all cases is that they DO NOT belong in the closet!

I highly recommend that you dedicate a shelf or area of your classroom to math materials. It’s equally important for students to choose the most appropriate tool, as it is for them to use them. Having materials out for students at all times will allow for that.

One of the joys of my job is that I get to visit schools and classrooms across the country. So, I will share with you some organizational tips that I have gathered from my journeys.

There are three schools of thought (no pun intended) when it comes to organizing manipulatives; individual kits, group kits or community tubs. You may find it helpful to use a combination of the three, depending on the item.

I’ll mention a couple of manipulatives specifically here.

Place Value Discs

Student Kits

Many teachers prefer to organize discs into student kits. The idea being that students will have easy access to the discs for lessons with minimal time getting discs out and cleaning them up.

This option works great if you have enough discs for each student to have 20 of each place value; 20 ones, 20 tens, 20 hundreds, etc. Students are expected to keep these baggies or boxes of discs in their desks.

Pros: Easy access

Cons: Relies on students to maintain the correct number of discs in their kits. (I was that teacher who couldn’t stand the fact that there was one ten disc on the floor at the end of the lesson that seemed to belong to no one!)

Group Kits

Like student kits, you’ll need 20 of each place value in each kit. With group kits, you don’t need as many total discs. The idea here is that students will use discs with a partner or in small groups. These kits can be stored in a community tub and pulled out for use during lessons.

Pros: Easy access

Cons: See above. (Which kit does this disc belong to?!?)

Community Tubs

In this case, discs are organized by place value into tubs. So, you would have a tub of ones, a tub of tens, and so on. In each tub, you can keep a set of small cups (Dixie cups work well) for students to take a scoop of the discs when needed. Clean up is a snap. Students simply dump the cups of discs back into the correct place value tub.

Pros: No more mystery missing discs! Very quick set up. (No more evenings spent counting out discs while watching TV.)

Cons: Requires a bit more practice with the procedure of gathering and returning discs to the correct tub.

Linking Cubes

Linking cubes are a multi-functional manipulative that each classroom should have. For a class of about 20 students, you’ll want to have at least 400 individual cubes. That’s enough for each student to have a set of 20 when needed for instruction. If you’re using them for modeling area or multiplication arrays, you might want double that amount.

Student Kits or Group Kits

You’ll want to put at least 20 in each kit.

Pros: Ease of access.

Cons: Whose cube is this?!?

Community Tubs

If you are keeping your cubes in tubs, for ease of passing out and cleaning up, organize them in rods of 10, preferably by color. That way you can quickly pass out 2 rods (or more) to each student or partner group.

Pros: Fewer materials in student desks. No more mystery cubes.

Cons: Need to establish procedures for keeping cubes in rods of ten. (Easy, peasy!)


Other manipulatives should be in tubs on a shelf in the classroom available to all students at all times!

If you have any organizational tips from your classroom that you’d like to share, please send us a comment.



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Ask the Experts: What manipulatives do you suggest for my grade level?

Singapore Mathematics instruction – or, really, just good math instruction – will have students working through three phases of learning, referred to as the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach. In order to teach following this approach, you need to start at the concrete level. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, believed that in order for students to be able to visualize and abstract mathematics they first must manipulate materials. He called this the concrete operational phase of learning.

So, what do you need to teach concretely? A complete list of recommended materials by grade level can be found here.

Really, though, with a few basic items you can get started…

Linking Cubes

Find linking cubes here.

Kindergarten – used for counting with one-to-one correspondence, measuring with non-standard units, and for modeling basic addition and subtraction situations.

1st – 2nd grade – used for place value understanding, to model story problems and mental math strategies, for measurement with non-standard units, building array models for multiplication, and for beginning bar modeling.

3rd grade – used to model part-whole and comparison word problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, for building array models for multiplication and division, and for modeling area.

4th grade and up – used to model word problems for multiplication, division, and ratio, and to model area and volume.

Base-Ten Blocks and Place Value Discs

Find Base Ten Blocks here and Place Value Discs here.

1st grade – Base-Ten Blocks are used to model place value for numbers to 100

2nd grade and up – Place Value Discs are used as a more abstract (and manageable) model for place value understanding for numbers from thousandths to millions, and for modeling and developing a conceptual understanding of the four standard algorithms. Base-Ten blocks can continue to be used for those students needing a one-to-one representation.

Paper Strips and Squares of Equal Size

Cut them from paper found in the recycle bin.

1st and 2nd grade – used to model fractions of a whole.

2nd grade and up – used to model the four operations of fractions with the same size whole and for modeling part-whole and comparison word problems.

Number Cards (Playing Cards) and Dice

Find number cards on our resources page or pick up some playing cards at your local dollar store. Dice can be found here.

All grades – for playing games and making math fun!


Get creative and have fun building your inventory of math manipulatives!

What questions do you have?

Next: Ideas for organizing manipulatives.
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Structuring the Math Day

One of the questions I get most often is:

How do I use the materials with my Singapore Math curriculum and fit it all into an hour math block?

First off, kudos to your school for setting aside an hour math block for your youngest learners! Through math instruction, students will gain the skills and thought processes necessary to solve problems. Math needs to be given a priority in the schedule. Following is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Yeap Ban Har, author, and contributor to several Singapore Math style curriculum.

“We are not teaching math. We are teaching thinking through the medium of math.”

What should I include in my lessons?
  • Ongoing cumulative review
  • Direct instruction
  • Guided practice
  • Independent practice
How much time should I spend on each component?

10 minutes – Ongoing Cumulative Review
20 minutes – Direct Instruction
30 minutes – Guided and Independent Practice

What does each component consist of?
Ongoing Cumulative Review (10 minutes)

According to Steven Leinwand, in his book Accessible Mathematics: 10 Instructional Shifts that Raise Student Achievement, in every classroom there should be signs of: 

A deliberate and carefully planned reliance on ongoing, cumulative review of key skills and concepts.

As you teach concepts, you will want to include them in your ongoing cumulative review. With such an emphasis on mental math strategies and the development of number sense, mental math should play a major role in your daily review.

Mental Math can be practiced through the use of:

Direct Instruction (20 minutes)

  • Teacher directed (follow the plan in the Teacher’s Guide)
  • Through student exploration (also known as, an Anchor Task)

Guided Practice (30 minutes combined with Independent Practice)

  • Textbook problems can be worked:
    • Whole group answering problems on individual whiteboards,
    • With partners working through problems together, or
    • Individually

Independent Practice (30 minutes combined with Guided Practice)

  • Workbook problems
    • As home enjoyment
    • As classwork
  • Fluency practice

Comment below with your questions or concerns about structuring your math day!

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Throwback Thursday – Direct from the classroom: Challenges & Successes with Singapore Math implementations

For our final post this summer, we thought it would be interesting to look at other challenges schools face in their adoptions. When I re-read a post from the past I always take away something different because I am in a different place with my own experience. Perhaps you are as well!

Direct from the classroom: Challenges & Successes with Singapore Math implementations

Originally published 12/1/2012

Some teacher challenges & successes with Singapore math one year or three months after adopting the program are below. Click to see larger images.

During follow-up in-services, I like to have teachers meet in grade level groups and spend time discussing the challenges and successes they have had thus far with their teaching of Singapore Math. Each grade level is then asked to list these challenges and successes on a poster and share with the group as a whole. This allows us time to compare and share lessons from the content fresh on their minds.

There is so much challenge the first year when implementing a new curriculum, it’s helpful to take a few moments to reflect on how many successes the teachers and students have had. These posters then guide subsequent teacher learning as we focus on the concepts that they are finding challenging.





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