The Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract (CPA) approach develops a deep understanding of math through building on existing knowledge. This highly effective framework introduces concepts in a tangible way and progresses to increasing levels of abstraction. In the concrete phase, students interact with physical objects to model problems. In the pictorial phase, they make a mental connection between the objects they just handled and visual representations of those objects. For example, real oranges (or counters standing in for oranges) are now represented as drawings of oranges. In the abstract phase, students use symbolic modeling of problems using numbers and math symbols (+, −, ×, ÷).

By varying the methods and phases of CPA fluidly, educators help reinforce important connections. Students work towards math mastery when they view concepts with increasing levels of abstraction over time. Not all lessons include all three CPA stages as application of this approach varies by topic. Instead, CPA principles are woven throughout the curriculum, and support other important strategies such as number bonds, bar modeling, and mental math.