Number Talks: How It Works

May 31, 2017

So, What are Number Talks?

Number Talks are brief math discussions that reinforce basic number sense. Students guide the discussion and respond to each other’s thinking. It is a wonderful way to get students talking about math! The teacher’s role in a Number Talk is to record student responses, not to guide their answers. There is a great book by Sherry Parish that goes much deeper into the how and why of Number Talks- it is definitely worth checking out!

Short and Sweet

Because Number Talks are designed to be short (5-10 minutes), they can easily be built into your everyday math block. In my classroom, we begin lessons with Number Talks, and, on occasion, do our Number Talks when we have a small break in between subjects/special areas/lunch. We use Number Talks to review and reinforce skills we have already covered- in 3rd grade it is great for reviewing multiplication and division strategies. When I taught 1st grade we did a lot of addition/subtraction, as well as combinations of 10 and 20. There are so many things you can do with Number Talks!

What Does It Look Like?

There are a few guidelines for Number Talks. Students are not using manipulatives or their math toolboxes during the exercise. The problems presented should be solvable using mental math. It is best to do a Number Talk in a common area, such as the carpet or kidney table if you’re doing it in a small group. The teacher needs something to record student responses- chart paper or a dry erase board. Once you are all set, here is the procedure:

First, the teacher presents students with a problem. Then, students use nonverbal signals to show they have an answer. In my class, students put a thumbs-up to their chest to show me they are ready to respond. Be sure to give enough think time- I like to wait until at least ¾ of my class is ready to respond.
Call on a student and ask how they can solve the problem. Listen and record as they work out the problem. This can be tricky for the teacher, as we want to guide their thinking. Remember that your job is to just record what they tell you. Students who agree with the strategy will show you using a nonverbal signal- thumb and pinky up, thumb to their chest, pinky pointed out.
Ask students if anyone has a different strategy. During this time, I have my students show me how many other ways they can solve the problem by putting that many fingers against their chest.
From here, I call on students to share different strategies or to use Accountable Talk to correct an incorrect procedure. We continue this process for about 5-10 minutes.
I have seen even my most timid students sharing out during Number Talks this year. It is a great way to encourage math discussion without students feeling the pressure of “being wrong”. As a teacher, Number Talks has really opened my eyes to strategies that I would never have thought of, but come naturally to my students. It is so fun to listen to them solve problems in different ways and seeing how their precious minds work! Do you use Number Talks in your classroom? I’d love to hear how they have changed your math lessons!


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