Getting Kids to Talk in Math Class


I don’t know about you, but I have had my struggles in the classroom.  If it wasn’t administrators who were ill-informed, it was students who had not yet learned to process their emotions functionally, or teammates who were in unspoken competitions with me.  Even with all this, at the top of my list, still, is helping students articulate their thinking in math class.

Have you experienced that struggle?  A student who has beautiful thinking on their paper and you want them to share with the class, but when the student has the floor, they say, “I can’t explain it” or “I don’t know how to explain it”.  The phrase that always sent chills down my spine was “I don’t get it (period)”.  Knowing there had to be a better why to life in the math classroom, I once murdered “I don’t get it“.

From that point forward, I began to see the beauty in language routines, a systematic way to help students articulate their thinking.  Here are a few that I have used within the classroom and found to be beneficial:

  1. “Here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know” or “Here’s what I know, here’s what I need to know”

With this language routine, students are encouraged to think about the information given within a problem or task and what information is needed to help them approach the problem.  Students still must collect information and share that information with peers or the teacher to gain new information.  The underlining beauty behind this routine is its usefulness in problem solving in which students can commit to memory and use independent of help.

2. “I agree with…” or “I disagree with…”

I blame reality tv for the dysfunctional way students communicate with one another some times.  I’ve had students call other students’ responses stupid or dumb because they did not agree with the strategy shared or the answer determined.  I believe there’s a better way to critique the reasoning of others and so I introduced “I agree with…” or “I disagree with…”.  Not only does this routine establish healthy communication skills, but also encourages better listening and speaking skills.  Students must listen carefully to their peers in order to express agreement or disagreement.  They must also think about their own thinking (metacognition).  What in your thought process makes you agree or disagree.

3. “Me too” (ASL for me too)

Routinely using Number Talks introduced this gesture to students.  But you don’t have to use Number Talks in order to teach students to say “me too” when making connections between and among thinking and strategies.  Whether it was during a think aloud or during a collaborative, whole group conversation, students can quickly and quietly demonstrate their connection to what was expressed.  My favorite phrase to use with this sign was, “If you were thinking along the lines of _____________________, give me a me too” followed by the hand gesture.  This is great for students who aren’t sure how to state their thinking because they hear how a peer as formulated a similar thought.  Or, they can hear thinking not similar to theirs and begin to consider what makes my thought different from theirs.

4. “I did it a different way…”

Related to “me too” is “I did it a different way”.  I believe it is powerful for students to know it is okay to approach a problem in a different way from their peers AND their teacher.  If we want students to be confident and mathematically literate, they need to build their stamina in problem solving.  This may mean approaching the problem in a way that makes sense to them, which may be different than others.  So, beginning with “I did it a different way” allows for students to consider what’s the same and what’s different when comparing their thinking/strategy with other.

5.  “Here’s what I’m thinking…”

I found that often times, students struggle to share their thinking because their thoughts are not yet complete.  Using “here’s what I’m thinking” provides students the space to have their incomplete thought honored.  It says, even your partial thinking is important and valued.  It allows other students to make connections and build upon the strategy shared by their peers.  It’s another way for students critique the reasoning of others.


Thinking Out Loud


One of the great things about coaching at a school where you previously taught is you get to see former students and talk with them about their new year. Recently, a former student approached me and said, “You know the difference between this year and last year is you taught us the why and how. This year, my teacher only teaches us how, not why and it confuses me because I don’t understand.”  This was powerful because he was a student who resisted my student-centered approach. He hated doing small groups and often asked if he could just do work out of the textbook. 

Within days of this encounter, I read an article from SEDL Insight titled, “Teaching Mathematics Conceptually“. While sitting and reading the article, I couldn’t help but think out loud. My thoughts can be categorized into 3 sections; “Aha!”, “Yeessss!” and “Amen!”


  • To say you are “reducing” a fraction creates misconceptions, the fraction is not smaller. Use simplify instead. 
  • Mathematics is a precise discipline and teachers don’t realize the slightest deviation from true mathematic language can make the content incorrect. 
  • Exponents indicate how many times the base appears as a factor, not number of times a number is multiplied. 
  • -(-4) should be interpreted as the opposite of -4. 


  • Algorithms and shortcuts are not bad, the key to using them to help rather than hinder understanding lies in the sequence of events. 
  • Relying only on algorithms and procedures and focusing on shortcuts result in teaching efficiency, not mathematics. 
  • As a result of naked math, teachers and students easily lose sight of the meaning of numbers and numerals. 


  • Memorization of rules and mastery of computation are not the same as true knowledge of mathematical concepts and ideas. 
  • Shortcuts become the means to get answers with the unfortunate result of bypassing conceptual understanding.  This makes it difficult for students to understand more advance or complex mathematics. 
  • By not taking shortcuts and insisting on illustrating the full process (cra),  it’s possible to make explicit connections among concepts.