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January 29, 2014 Math Talk 101 By Genia Connell
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    This fall, after switching to our first new math program in over 20 years, we were told that Math Talk was an important component of the program. My first thought was — "Sounds great! What is Math Talk???"

    Over the past five months, I’ve learned Math Talk is simply a way for students to have meaningful student-to-student conversations about math while learning to respect and understand there is more than one way to correctly approach and solve a problem.

    This week I'd like to share with you how I've gotten a start in Math Talk, as well as what I've learned along the way! 

    Why Give Math Talk a Try?

    Once I began using Math Talk in my classroom, it did not take long for me to realize that it is one of the most efficient ways I've found to help my students meet the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice. (For the clearest description I’ve seen of the standards, read Meghan Everette’s post, "A Guide to the 8 Mathematical Practice Standards.") Math Talk engages students and takes them from being passive listeners as classmates solve problems on the board, to active listeners, eager to ask questions and provide their personal explanations. 

    While I am just beginning to incorporate Math Talk as a regular component of my math workshop, I am already seeing my third graders’ mathematical reasoning and ability to construct rationale arguments and respectfully critique the reasoning of others improve with each lesson. While I had always adhered to the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy as I formulated higher-level questions for my students, I've found there is something decidedly different about using Math Talk. 


    How to Get Started

    There is a saying we frequently use in my building that holds true with Math Talk: Go slow to go fast. Incorporate questioning and reasoning techniques a little at a time. Don’t expect your students to "get it" right away, either. In the beginning, my third graders would ask questions unrelated to what they were really thinking just for the sake of asking questions. Each week we have worked on asking authentic questions that we truly want answered and each week our questioning, critiquing, and reasoning skills are improving. Below you’ll see the way I implemented Math Talk, one phase at a time.

    Step 1: Ask and Model Open-Ended Questions

    Initially I led the questioning using easy, open-ended questions, like "What makes you say that?" or "What makes you think that?" I hung a few posters around the room to encourage my students to begin using and expecting these types of questions, in math and other subjects as well.  

    Set of four printable thinking routine posters

    Click on the image above to print this set of four posters. 

    Step 2: Provide Visual Cues for Reference

    Within the first month of school, my third graders were able to generate a list of question stems that I had been modeling. We put these into an anchor chart we keep posted in our room. My students relied heavily on this chart when we first began implementing Math Talk.  

    Math Talk Anchor Chart

    I took my handmade anchor chart and put it into a Word document so I would be able to print it as a 16" x 22" poster and use it year after year. To print my Math Talk chart for your own classroom, Click the image below and adjust your printer's settings to poster-sized .

    Free printable math talk poster

    After making the poster, I used it to create bookmarks for my students. They use these frequently when working together in partnerships or small groups.

    Free printable Math Talk Bookmarks

    Click on the image above to download and print my Math Talk bookmarks for your class. 

    Step 3: Engage Students in Math Talk during Whole Group Instruction

    After I had exposed my class to several different types of “thinking” questions while doing math problems together, it was their turn to start asking the questions instead of me. 

    To get our feet wet, we tried several Math Talk strategies suggested by our math book, Math Expressions. These strategies include:

    • Solve and Discuss (Solve, Explain, Question, Justify): Four to five students go to the board and each child solves a problem using any method he chooses. Their classmates work on the same problem independently on paper or dry erase boards. Ask two or three children at the board to explain their methods. Children at their desks ask questions and assist each other in understanding the problem and the solution. 

    • Step-by-Step: Several children go to the board. This time, however, different children perform each step of the solution, describing the step before everyone else does it. The rest of the class needs to listen actively to complete the problem step-by-step. Students ask clarifying questions during the steps.

    • Student Pairs: Two children work together to solve a problem and explain a solution method to each other. One pair then shares their solution and explanation with the whole group on the board, while the class and teacher agree/disagree and ask questions.

    Watch the video of my students using the student pairs strategy while solving a problem from our math book. Remember as you watch all the videos here, we are still beginners! Mobile users can access the Student Pairs video here.


    Step 4: Students Begin Discussing Problems Independently in Small Groups

    Occasionally my third graders will check their math activity book pages or homework together in small groups. They are encouraged to talk about any problems that caused disagreement or confusion. Using an interactive whiteboard app like Educreations or Show Me, the small groups work out the problem together to make sure each group member understands how it was solved. 

    Student whiteboard slates or paper can be used as well, but I love that I can later log onto the app with my iPad and actually watch and listen to what all my groups were thinking while I was working with students on the other side of the room. Having their thinking captured on a recording has turned out to be an amazing formative assessment tool, and a wonderful way for me to quickly see who needs my help on any particular concept. 

    Math talk practice with Educreationsmath talk practice


    Watch as my students discuss work from their activity book and homework while I drop in to listen in on (and record!) a few of their discussions. Mobile users can access the Small Group video here.


    The video below illustrates specifally how the Educreation app is used in my room for Math Talk. In the first segment I am leading a small group during math workshop while the second part shows a small group independently using Math Talk on a homework problem. I love that once students have recorded their thinking, their work can easily be emailed home to share with parents or posted to my class website. Mobile users can access the Educreation video here.



    Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice

    Because I am still trying to improve Math Talk in my classroom daily, I have been reading as much as I can about it. To give myself permission to move slowly and steadily down the Math Talk path, I created a progression chart to help guide me in this new journey, which you can see below. After five months, I am still in the Getting Started column in some areas, and Getting Better in others, with the last column my year-end goal.

    Printable Math Talk Action Plan

    Click on the image above to print a copy of my Math Talk Progression Chart


    What Types of Problems Work Best for Math Talk?

    For me, as a newbie to Math Talk, I found the best questions to start a Math Talk with were those that were open ended with several possible correct answers. When the students knew there were several solutions, they seemed more willing to share their answers and strategies and a natural curiosity led them to asking questions about their classmates’ thinking. The very first Math Talk I did came from a problem I found on Scholastic!

    Math Talk starter

    Click image above to visit Scholastic's frizzle to learn more about  this math talk.

    As my class has progressed in their Math Talk skills, we have moved onto a variety of different types of questions. In addition to open-ended problems, I have found Math Talks particularly effective with word/story problems and assigned problems that were difficult or confusing to several students' multi-step problem solving. I also love doing Math Talks with my Think Math board. Each week I give students a different “answer” and they need to write a word problem question that would result in my answer. In a normal week, there are 28 different solutions and several are incorrect each time — the perfect scenario for a Math Talk!

    Think math board


    While I am decidedly a novice in using Math Talk in my classroom, I am excited by the discourse and the student growth in mathematical reasoning I've seen so far in my classroom. While leading and listening to mathematical discussions, I am gaining a clearer picture of my students' understanding as well as their misunderstandings. The most exciting part may be all the "aha" moments I see with my students when a math concept that puzzled them suddenly become crystal clear in the middle of an explanation. 

    If you have questions or have had a positive experience with Math Talk that you would like to share, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below! 

    For more information on all things elementary, be sure to follow me on Twitter and Pinterest and subscribe to this blog.

    Wishing you the best with your math talk! Genia


    For more resources on Math Talk check out the following from Scholastic:


    "Math Class with Marilyn Burns"

    "Math Out Loud!"

    "Early Math: How Children 'Think Math'"

    Resources from the Teacher Store






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