“I want noise and plenty of it–productive, purposeful, and meaningful noise–from everyone, students and teachers alike.” Christine Moynihan, Math Sense

Note: Join me on Wednesday, October 19th, at 9:00 PM EST as I guest moderate #3rdchat. Our topic is math talk! If you’ve never participated in a Twitter chat, this would be a great one to start with. Check out this post on using Twitter for professional development.

I have, quite possibly, the best job ever. I am a K-5 math interventionist, which means I pull small groups of students all day, every day. When it comes to teaching math, I found out a long time ago that it is much more powerful for me to listen than to talk. Bottom line, the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning, so our students should be talking more than us.

To start out the school year, I administered a simple math attitude survey to my 3rd through 5th grade students. One of the questions asked students to rate their comfort level talking about math. The results from my 3rd and 4th grade students are shown in the graph (I did not include 5th grade, because the sample size was too small). As you can see, the majority of my students don’t feel very comfortable talking about math, and I think that’s probably representative of students (and maybe even teachers!) in general.

The fact is, our standards now demand that students deeply understand the math they are doing and explain and justify their thinking. It’s about the process, not just the product. We simply can’t achieve that goal without academic conversations in our classrooms. Fortunately, there are a great many resources to help us shift the culture in our classrooms from one of working math problems in silence and isolation, to creating an environment of collaborative learning, steeped in rich mathematical discussions. In this post, I’ve listed five resources that have shaped my instructional practices. As you’ll see, they all serve slightly different purposes, but the common theme is that students learn best when they are talking about math. This list is certainly not exhaustive, and I hope you’ll add your favorites in the comments.


Math Sense: The Look, Sound, and Feel of Effective Math Instruction, Christine Moynihan

I just straight up love this book, and it’s no coincidence that I listed it first. As you can tell from the title, it covers so much more than just math talk–it redefines every aspect of the mathematics classroom and exemplifies the shift in what math instruction must look and sound like to produce mathematicians ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The chapter on The Sound of the Lesson outlines the changing roles of students and teachers, gives the rationale for why traditional roles must change, and is packed with ideas you can use in your classroom tomorrow. This book is one-stop shopping, and it’s a great choice for teachers looking to shift from a more traditional teacher-centered classroom to one that is more student-centered. If you’d like to know more, you might want to check out my online book study.


Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions, Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz

If you have already dabbled in math talk in your classroom and you want to take it deeper, this is the book for you. In the Introduction, Kazemi and Hintz outline four principles that guide their work on mathematical discussions.

  • Discussions should achieve a mathematical goal
  • Students need to know what and how to share
  • Teachers need to orient students to one another and the mathematical ideas
  • Teachers must communicate that all students are sense makers and that their ideas are valued

The remainder of the book provides detailed descriptions of specific discussion strategies that target different goals, such as comparing and contrasting solution strategies or generating justifications. The book is filled with vignettes that take readers inside classrooms to “hear” what each targeted discussion sounds like.

The big take-away from this book is that mathematical discussions don’t just happen, they have to be planned and intentional. The appendix even contains planning templates you can use to plan for productive math discussions.

Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Sherry Parrish

This book forever changed the way I think about and teach computation. Number talks, as described in this particular book, are short–10-15 minute–warm-up activities focusing on mental math strategies.  The book includes a great section describing what number talks are and how to use them in the classroom, and then the rest of the book is organized by grade levels–explaining what number talks look like at each grade level and providing pages with problem sets that can be used to promote certain strategies. It’s not as much a book you’ll read as one you’ll use. Click on this picture to watch a short video example of a number talk.



Making Number Talks Matter, Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker

This is another book about using number talks to help students develop computational strategies based on an understanding of numbers. The intended audience is grades 4-10 and those students who come to upper elementary lacking number sense and computational strategies. The examples in the book include whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and connections to algebra. Unlike Parrish’s book, this book does not contain number strings or sets of images. Instead, the authors describe the most common strategies for each operation, list sample problems to use with each strategy and ideas for scaffolding to more challenging problems, provide examples of how students might describe each strategy, and show examples of how to record student thinking. Vignettes sprinkled throughout the chapters give a feel for what the talks might sound like. This is a great resource for teachers wondering how to approach number talks in the upper grades.

Guided Math Conferences, Laney Sammons

The final book on my list is completely different from the others. While the other books describe math talk in a whole or small group setting, this book focuses on one-on-one student conferences. Brilliant, right? Math conferences are one component of the Guided Math framework but, as Sammons points out, they can be effectively used in classrooms with or without the Guided Math framework. Math conferences are brief conversations (about 5 minutes), and they take on the tone of fellow mathematicians having a discussion, rather than a teacher instructing a student. Because of this, students come to see the teacher as someone who can answer their questions and help clarify their thinking, rather than an authority figure who judges their work as right or wrong. Done well, math conferences have the power to change the classroom culture to one of shared learning. And in this book, Sammons provides everything you need to do conferences well.

There you have it! Five great resources for promoting math talk in your classroom. Remember that one size does not fit all. Set your own personal math talk goal and choose the resource to support your growth in that area. I would love to hear about any other resources you have found helpful, as well as your experiences with math talk in your classroom. Chime in with a comment!


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