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.


The Writing on the Wall


One thing I absolutely love is in the middle of an assessment, a student will raise their hand and say, “You forgot to take the charts down.” I respond with a bright smile and whisper, “I know, it’s okay.” A feeling of joy wells up inside of me because its conformation they are using the anchor charts.

If you walk into my classroom the only manufactured posters you’ll find are the one required by administration to post. All other writing on the wall is student thinking from…wait for it…this school year! If you’ve never heard of anchor charts, a brief definition is chart paper housing and displaying the thoughts and strategies of students. Often times, like mine, the charts are created by the teacher, but should ultimately be created by students.

Whether it is after a number talk or during the closing of my lesson, I snap a picture of the thinking and transfer it to an anchor chart and literally hang it up in the classroom. Students are able to view the charts from their seats or walk up to the chart to review and make sense of what they see.



Numbertalks session

Numbertalks Anchor Chart






Anchor Charts

Aspirations for Number Talks


If you haven’t heard of number talks by now, it may be safe to say you have been a bit disconnected from the math world. Five to fifteen minutes is all it takes to encourage math discussions among students, get an idea of the strategies your students possess, capture student thinking for everyone to see and/or reinforce ideas which may not fit into your current unit of study.

At the elementary level, I’ve seen the tremendous effect number talks can have on students’ thinking, math language and strategy use. Just listen to these second graders discuss how they would make 24 from the given numbers 2nd graders making 24. This language and thinking was developed during daily number talks. Because I am an elementary teacher at heart I never thought about number talks in middle school.

That was until I accepted a position as a 7th grade math teacher for the 2014-2015 school year. As I dreamed about all of the things I would implement next year, number talks was high on my list. Thinking of how crazy it may seem having my students ponder about numbers, putting thumbs to chests and sharing strategies would be in a 7th grade classroom, those thoughts were silenced by a document shared by @ddmeyer on Twitter. Oakland Instructional Toolkit for Mathematics

From this document came my aspirations for number talks. Here’s what I envision; review many 6th grade concepts through number talks. This Summer I’ll review the 6th grade units as aligned by the GaDOE. Using each units concepts and standards, I’ll create number strings in which I will use on the days I don’t use Estimation 180. To capture student thinking, my goal is to snap a picture of the recordings and upload them into an Evernote notebook dedicated to Number talks. This will allow for the information to be accessed from wherever Internet is available.

Goal number 1: Implement Number Talks