# Concrete pictorial abstract approaches in the classroom

## Paul Main

How can we use concrete pictorial abstract approaches in the classroom to make learning less abstract? Find out here.

How can we use concrete pictorial abstract approaches in the classroom to make learning less abstract? Find out here.

**Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract (CPA) **is an effective method for teaching that offers a sustainable and deep **understanding** of maths to the students. Often marked as the concrete, representational, abstract framework, **CPA** was first proposed by the American psychologist Jerome Bruner. CPA approach is a crucial strategy to teach maths for mastery in **Singapore**. Through our work with schools, we have seen first hand how physical experiences can shape thinking. Many of the concepts children encounter within the curriculum are too abstract to fully understand during their early exposure. Learners need to be able to explore the problem using multi sensory approaches. Our research has also shown us that this teaching approach shouldn't be limited to just Maths. The block building method that we regularly use to help children understand new classroom ideas can be applied across subjects and year groups. The visual stimulus enables learners to build a visual representation of the content they are studying. The block models are effectively a projection of the students thinking, they are manipulating and viewing their cognition, a powerful form of assessment for learning in any learning situation. In this article we will unpick CPA and also link you to other research areas related to this strategy.

**CPA** is developed to help learners understand mathematics meaningfully. Under the **CPA approach**, the learners will be taught by providing:

- the essential learning experiences using the
**concrete materials**; - the
**visual representations**of the mathematical concepts or techniques; - And, the
**mathematical symbols**at the abstract stage.

**CPA** is widely used to teach mathematics to primary school students in **Singapore**** **(hence it's association with this area).

But, as a **general teaching principle****,** it is also used to teach **mathematics** in secondary schools (especially in **lower secondary classrooms**).

Many children find mathematics hard because it is abstract. The distinct stages of the **CPA approach** to teaching builds on children’s current understanding by instructing abstract concepts using **tangible** and **concrete** methods. It involves shifting from **concrete materials**, to **pictorial representations****,** and then towards **abstract concepts **and symbols.

In the “doing” stage of the CPA learning approach, learners model problems by using concrete objects. At the c**oncrete stage of the CPA approach, **new concepts are taught using **practical resources** or **physical objects**. When children **physically handle** these resources, they are more able to gain **mathematics mastery**.

These concrete resources are also called **maths manipulatives** and these may include commonly used household items such as dice or straws, or specialised mathematical resources such as **numicon** or **dishes**.

In traditional ways of teaching mathematics, teachers taught how to solve a problem. The **CPA model** transforms concepts to life by enabling students to experience and handle concrete manipulatives (actual objects). In the CPA learning approach, each abstract concept is first taught using interactive, physical materials.

**The pictorial **step is the “seeing” step. In this stage, problems are modelled using the **visual representation** of a physical object. This step of **CPA method** motivates children to make a **direct connection** between the concrete object they just dealt with and the visual representation, models or diagrams that represent the problem.

Once students understood a maths concept using **real objects,** students may proceed with drawing quick sketches or visual representations of the objects. While benefiting from **pictorial representation, **students would no longer manipulate the physical objects, but still take advantage of the pictorial support the resources may provide.

Some mathematics teachers tend to leave this step out, but visual recording is crucial to ensuring that students can make the **connection** between a physical resource and abstract notation. In absence of **pictorial representation**, children may find it difficult to **visualise** a problem.

Drawing or developing a **model** makes it easier for the students to understand complex mathematical and conceptual concepts (for instance, adding mixed numbers). An example of the pictorial step is using the **bar model **where bars represent the unknown and known quantities in more complex multi-step problem-solving.

**The abstract steps** make the symbolic level of CPA stages, where students model problems using abstract symbols. Students do not move forward to this step until demonstrate a solid conceptual understanding of the concrete and pictorial phases of the problem. At this stage, the teacher introduces the **abstract concept **(for example, arithmetic symbols). Students are taught abstract topics at a symbolic level, by way of only mathematical symbols, notation and numbers (for example, ÷ and x are used to teach division and multiplication).

The most effective learning takes place when primary school students can frequently go back and forth between these three steps of the **CPA maths approach**. This would ensure the **reinforcement** and **understanding** of the mathematical concepts.

Students develop a much **deeper understanding **of Maths if they don’t have to use rote learning. They feel more confident to solve **mathematical problems **without having to **memorise** concepts.

When they are taught using **concrete resources **children can develop better **reasoning** and **communication** skills. Also, a skilled teacher can observe children and assess where students are making a **mistake** and to what extent they established the depth of their mathematical **understanding**.

While students are encouraged to read a passage in the language class, to **understand** it well, it is always better to have **seen** what the passage is related to. If the letters u-m-b-r-e-l-l-a are put together and children have no idea what an umbrella is, it would remain **abstract** and **meaningless** to teach any topic related to the umbrella.

People don't seem to think about it while teaching a **mathematical concept,** but many mathematics concepts remain meaningless without a picture or concrete resource to go with the topic.

Historically, the use of **concrete objects **in the classroom was limited to **early childhood education**. In current times, the **maths mastery** **approach** expects children of both primary and secondary schools to progress using manipulatives. Every child grasps mathematical concepts at a different speed, so they may progress to the **abstract stage** in some areas but remain at the **concrete stage **in others. Following are three easy ways to move students from concrete to abstract representation:

**CPA** is an effective approach of learning which can be applied in more than one way. If learners are not feeling confident then they must be encouraged to **move back** to the pictorial or concrete steps. Instead of quickly removing manipulatives, these must remain available for the children to use. Changing the resources to teach the key concepts in different ways can help build **connections** between different steps of the **CPA** approach.

**Scaffolding** can break learning into smaller chunks and make it easier for the students to learn each chunk. Scaffolding may include:

**Sentence****starters;****Targeted questioning;****Key vocabulary cards;****Example****diagrams****;****Paired work;****Discussion time**with the whole class, with a partner, or group members;**Discussing**and**Modelling**the thought process

As part of their professional development, teachers can provide lots of **scaffolding** at the start of a new concept. However, scaffolding must be **reduced** when children become confident and understand the concept.

It is suggested that the students must spend more time developing the mental connections between the three steps of Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract Approach while gradually increasing the level of challenge in the examples. It will ensure a solid understanding of maths. More challenges can be added by:

- Intensifying the
**complexity**of the problem; **Discussing**the same topic in**different**contexts;- Asking students to
**give**their**examples**; - Incorporating
**additional stages**to solve the problem.

Using maths manipulatives is important to secure deep understanding and promote a successful mathematical experience. Both concrete and pictorial steps are crucial parts of the learning process and should be performed thoughtfully, not rushed through.

**Children** need support to shift from concrete equipment to **abstract** understanding. By thoughtfully structuring maths teaching through **CPA steps**, teachers can provide the support students need, whenever they need it.