How to Have Number Talks

Number talks are powerful but short activities that increase student learning and achievement in math classrooms. This brief activity is often 10-15 minutes in length and helps support the mathematical sensemaking that common core requires. It always helps promote flexible thinking while developing number sense and mental computation. What I really like about it is it helps our kiddos feel more confident in themselves and trust their own reasoning. It also helps them understand that there is more than one way to solve a mathematical problem!

Have you always wanted to do number talks in your math classroom but wasn't sure how? Check out this post where I walk you through it and help you get started today!

Number talks were created by Ruth Parker and Kathy Richardson. You can gain more information about number talks by heading to their website found here.

How to Have Number Talks in Your Classroom

Before you get started, you’ll want to select a mental computation problem. For instance, 49×5. Then anticipate how your students may approach the problem, including any mistakes or misunderstandings they may have. Also, plan on how you will record the answers and strategies.

1.) Management. As you begin, you’ll want to make sure that you have clear instructions for your class on how things run during the number talks. For instance, when a student has completed a problem, you’ll want them to demonstrate this by placing a thumbs up near his or her chest so that it doesn’t disturb other students. This also prevents other students from feeling rushed and it’s discreet.

Additionally, you want the environment to be a safe one. Instead of answers being viewed as right or wrong, view them as helping you and your class understand math better. Try to keep it on a volunteer-only basis. If you don’t hear from a student repeatedly, then privately encourage the student or collect work.

2.) Place the Problem on the Board for students to work on. Give plenty of time. Students need lots of think time and shouldn’t feel rushed, nor should they feel that it is a competitive environment.

3.) Elicit Answers. After plenty of time has passed and students are ready, gather all answers by asking, “Who is willing to share what they think the answer is?” Do not collect strategies or their reasoning just yet. Encourage students to share even if their answer is different from others.

4.) Ask Students to Defend their Answer. After collecting all the answers from the number talk, ask the question, “Who is willing to defend one of the answers? Does anyone have a strategy they want to share?” At this time listen carefully, clarify as needed, and record the answers. Avoid assumptions and don’t put words in their mouth.

Definitely avoid praising students and evaluating responses. Just like I mentioned in my post, Why I Will Not Praise my Students, this gives confirmation that their strategy is valid and then causes them to rely on you instead of their own reasoning. Instead, ask follow up questions that focus on the students’ thinking.

5.) Ask Students What They Notice or a Similar Open-Ended Question. Have students reflect on the strategies used by other classmates. They should see connections among the strategies or see that some strategies could work for another type of problem. Eventually, they will engage thoroughly with each other’s ideas more and more.

When time is up, you may not have heard every strategy or answer. That is okay. You can always pick back up where you left off the next time. In fact, number talks are always best to do regularly to see growth in your students’ thinking. Multiple times a week will help you build on the previously learned strategies and will change the focus from getting the answer quickly to more on the how and why of math.

Number Talks help students deepen their understanding of math, learn to listen, reflect and critique others, and grow comfortable with their mistakes. This is a step closer to moving away from viewing math as just a collection of rules and procedures and instead toward a system of relationships to investigate instead.

You can learn more about number talks by checking out these books:

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