Differentiation Through Games

I am the teacher who is constantly thinking of ways to shake up the lessons in my classroom. I don’t walk down the game aisle or through the Target Dollar Spot thinking about practical life purchases, but instead, I ask myself, “How could I use this in the classroom?” (let’s be honest, any classroom purchase is “practical” in my eyes)

Some of you are probably familiar with the game called Headbanz, where you put the card on your forehead and people give you clues in order to guess what picture is on your card. I wasn’t super familiar with this game until I saw a teacher’s Instagram post about using it in her classroom. I immediately starting thinking about how I would implement this game in my class and finally came up with an idea!

About a year ago, our class was getting ready to start a new math unit on operations and algebraic thinking. One of the fifth-grade math standards is to write & interpret simple numerical expressions (5.OA.2). After talking about key operational words, expressions, & order of operations, it was time to try out my game/Instagram inspired idea.

First of all, I decided to try this out during a formal observation! I had no idea how it would turn out, but I figured it would be a good time to try something new because I knew I would receive feedback.

Also important to know, my class at the time had a VERY BROAD range of mathematical skills. While we are always differentiating to meet different learners’ needs, I was very aware of my situation. I had to think of a way to push all students, while also giving them a chance to be & feel successful.

Prep for this lesson was pretty simple & quick. The majority of the prep time was used to create numerical expression cards. While I was making the cards for my lesson, I decided I would have two different colors. The green cards would have numerical expressions with one operation, while the blue cards would have numerical expressions with at least two operations, some including grouping symbols. Each set contained both green & blue cards, and I prepared enough sets so my students could work in a partnership of two.

When it came to a point in the lesson where I felt my students were grasping the skill, which was quicker than I had originally thought, I gave them the directions & expectations for our game.


  1. Partner A draws a card and puts it on their forehead (see “things to think about” #1)
  2. Partner B reads the expression using key operation words.
  3. Partner A writes the expression on their whiteboard, as their partner read it.
  4. Once Partner A’s written expression matches the expression on their forehead, switch partners.

After modeling what this would look like (myself & another student), I explained the difference between the green & blue cards. I asked everyone to start with the green cards & gave them the independence to choose when they moved to the blue cards based on their level of understanding. We also discussed how there are many different ways we can read expressions. For example, we could read 7 + 3

  • 7 plus 3
  • 3 more than 7
  • the sum of 7 & 3

It was then time to send them back to their tables to work with their “across the street” partner!

While this lesson was not perfect, the outcome made me happy. All students were engaged (and appeared to be having fun), students had multiple opportunities to read & write numerical expressions with different levels of difficulty, & I was free to walk around while informally assessing my students!

Things to consider…

Whenever I try something in my classroom for the first time, I always look for ways I can improve. Improvement might look like clearer directions, difficulty level, or room set-up, depending on the lesson & activity. In terms of this lesson, here is where I thought I could improve:

  1. Holding the Card: It would be ideal if you could purchase the elastic headbands from dollar tree so the students can slide the cards into the headband. I found that it was hard for students to hold the card to their forehead while trying to write the expression. If you don’t have headbands, that is okay! I have used this activity for two years and we have never used headbands. Some students still put it to their forehead, some held it behind their whiteboard, and some students even chose to have the partner who is reading the expression hold the card. They key is, don’t let the partner who is writing the expression see the expression. img_5080-2.jpg
  2. Strategic PartneringSome students were very comfortable with the one operation expressions and were ready to move on the more difficult expressions, while their partner wasn’t quite there. I figured the partner who was ready to move on could move on, but really each partner is working at the same level of difficulty because while one is reading the expression and the other is writing, they are both working with the same expression. I think it would be better to partner students with someone who is about on their level (I hope that makes sense).
  3. Creating the cards: First of all, if you plan to use headbands, make sure you leave enough room at the bottom of the cards so the headband doesn’t cover the expression. Next, be mindful of how many cards you make. After completing this activity for a second time, I realized I need to make more cards! Not only will I make more cards, but I am also going to add a third color! It really depends on your students. My first year I had a lot of students who used all the green cards before moving on to blue, where this year a lot of my students were quick to change to the blue cards and could have done more! (pro-tip: use cardstock & laminate the cards if you want to save them for the future)

I have now used this game in my classroom for two years. Not only have I used it to practice reading and writing numerical expressions, but I have also used it to review vocabulary! It is a game I will continue to use (making adjustments each time, I’m sure) and I would definitely recommend trying it in your own classroom!





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