How To Make the Most of a Math Talk

Math Talks.  Number Talks.  Whatever you call them, they’ve been around for a while now.

We know that talking about number sense with our classmates leads to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our base 10 number system.  You can read about Why I do Math Talks here.  Or, you can say…

“But I don’t have 30 minutes every day in my math block to dedicate to a Math Talk!”
“But I’ve been doing Math Talks and it doesn’t seem to be making a difference!”
“But I’ve started Math Talks but I have NO IDEA what in the world I’m doing!”

Don’t worry.  I’ve been there.  I’ve had many a failed Math Talks over the years.  But I knew in my heart that Math Talks was a best practice because it was best for kids.  So I dug in my heels, put my big girl panties on (sorry, Mom!) and kept on.

And I finally found a rhythm to Math Talks that worked for me and my first graders.  So let’s chat about how to make the most of a Math Talk.

Follow A Predictable Routine

There are no surprises in my Math Talk routine.  Oops.  I lied.  The content is a surprise to the kids.  The rest is the. exact. same.  Every time.  Why?  Because predictability is good for kids.  It makes the routine smoother and faster.  Once the kids learn what’s coming next, there is no more explaining and it moves along like a well-oiled machine.

So what is the routine?
When it is time for the actual Math Talk, I pull up the digital Math Talk file on my White Board.  I tell the kids what our goal is for the talk.

“Today, we are working on using what we already know to solve a new problem.  Get your thinking caps on because it’s time to TALK ABOUT MATH!”

Then, I click on the Math Talk link to pull it up.  If you are using your own Math Talk, this is where you would put that Math Talk on the board.

If it is an image (dots, ten frames, rekenreks, etc), then I only show it for 3 seconds.  After 3 seconds I click to the next (blank) slide and give them 30 seconds of wait time to solve.  The kids know this.  I don’t remind them after the 2nd or 3rd time.  If it is an equation or skills (shapes, measurement, etc), I don’t time them.  I just leave it up and they get to solving.  Again, they get 30 seconds or so of wait time.

After the wait time, I say, “TURN AND TELL” and they echo, “HOW I GOT MY ANSWER!”  Then, they think-pair-share for a minute or so.  I listen in to a few partners to hear strategies.

Then, I say, “TIME TO SHARE in 3, 2, 1…” and by that time they are turned back to face the Math Talk.  If it was an image, I go back to the slide at this time.  If it was an equation there is no need to change anything.

Now it’s time to share as a whole group.  I ask some kids (randomly or intentionally chosen…it’s up to you) to tell me the answer only.  We collect different answers.  Then, I go back and ask those same kids to tell me how they got their answer so we can agree on the correct answer.

Once we agree on the correct answer, we start sharing different strategies.  This part can get long if you let it.  Don’t.  Stay focused on your guiding question(s).  In my example, I would say after each strategy is shared, “Did you use something you already knew to solve?  What was it?”

As the kids share, I notate.  They do not come up to the board.  This will take up too much time.  They stay seated and they TALK.  I notate.  I share 2-4 strategies MAX.  I notate each strategy in a new color so we can easily see what goes with what!  Really enough to see different strategies and to reinforce our guiding question.  If I get the strategies I want and can reinforce our guiding question after 2 strategies, I move on.  If not, I may ask for 1 or 2 more.

There are 3 images or equations in most of the Math Talks.  I use the same exact routine for the 2nd round.  I repeat our goal, “Remember, we are working on using what we already know to solve a new problem.  Get your thinking caps back on because it’s time to TALK ABOUT MATH!”

During the 3rd round, we do the same thing again with one difference.  This time, after our think-pair-share, we play, “Guess My Way.”  We will come back to this in a few!

Picking the Right Math Talk

Once you have the routine down, it’s time to learn how to intentionally pick a Math Talk that is best for your students.  This is definitely an art that gets better over time.  If you are new to Math Talks, my suggestion is that you just pick something–anything–and try it out.  Just jump in head first and follow the routine above.

You will find out quickly if you picked well or not.  If you missed the mark, don’t be afraid to stop in the middle and tell the kids you’ll start over later that day or tomorrow.  My hands up because I’ve totally done this a few times!  It’s okay–no, it’s good–for kids to see that adults and teachers mess up too! 🙂

Here is my thought process for picking out a Math Talk.

What is my base 10 or math skill goal for the day or week?
If I’m working on counting on, I need to choose images with a set that’s easy to subitize and count on.

If I’m working on making a ten, I need to choose ten frames to help kids see how many more to ten.  Or I need to choose equations with numbers that can be combined to make ten and some more (3 + 4 + 7) or decomposed to make 10 (5 + 6).

If I’m working on shape attributes, I need to choose a shape talk that asks kids to defend what makes a triangle a triangle.

What do I want kids to demonstrate in the math talk?
If I want them to show FLUENT THINKING, I stick with images and equations that will push kids to do something besides counting all.  Those are images that can easily be subitized.  Or that have the bigger set on the right side so that they add on from the bigger number.  Those are also equations that have a clear bigger number (2+12) or have a 10 in them (5 + 3 + 5).

If I want students to show FLEXIBLE THINKING, I tend to use images or equations with more than 2 numbers.  Images always encourage a wide range of strategies because everyone sees the pictures differently where a basic equation, most kids read left to right and it’s harder to push them outside of that box.

What type of Math Talk should I use?
In first grade, I do a mix of images and equations.  At the beginning of the year, the mix is probably about 70% images.  By the end of the year, that is flipped with about 70% of our Math Talks being equations.

In kinder, all Math Talks will be images at the beginning of the year.  And we will move to 30% of them being equations by the end of the year.

In second grade, the mix is mostly equations with a few images here and there as needed!

For my first grade teacher friends that don’t want to have to think about all of this, I have the Math Talks I use for each of my weekly goals listed in my Guided Math Workshop Plans.

Engage Kids in Active Listening & Talking

The best way to keep kids engaged in a math talk is to keep it short, laser focused on the guiding question and goal, and move quickly from one part to the next…like clockwork.  Timing really is…everything! 🙂

The next best thing to keep kids engaged and active in Math Talks is partner talk.  Giving kids a chance to turn and talk gives them a reason to move their body and talk one on one.  Everyone’s strategy gets heard by at least their partner…even if they don’t get to share with the whole group.

Another strategy I use is writing names next to the strategies as I notate them.  Kids LOVE seeing their names and their friends’ names on the board.  And they will want to share more when they see names on the board.  I promise you that!

I’m a believer in TPR (Total Physical Response).  So when I show the image or equation, students put their thumbs to their chest when they have a strategy and are ready to talk.  But then, they continue to think of a different way to solve and add a new finger when they have another way.  So I can see kids who have one way or multiple ways or no way at all.

Another sign we use is “Me too.”

The last thing I use to keep kids engaged during our 3rd “round” of Math Talks is “Guess My Way.”  We basically do the same think time, partner talk time, and whole group share.  But I have a specific strategy in mind that matches our goal.  After each strategy, I say, “That was a great strategy, but…THAT’S NOT MY WAY!” and the kids learn to say that with me.  Once kids guess my way, I say, “That’s a great strategy, and…YOU GUESSED MY WAY!”  If no one has guess my way after a few tries, I do tell them, just to keep things moving.   It doesn’t matter that we play this every time.  This is their favorite. Every hand goes up during this game.

Notate, Notate, Notate

Notation is what takes a Math Talk from good to great.  Notation is writing exactly what we say in mathematical language.

And it’s MY job to notate kids thinking in a Math Talk.  It’s my chance to model how mathematicians write their thinking.  It’s not unlike writer’s workshop where I model how to write what kids are saying.

So if a kid says, “I started at 9 and counted 1 more,” I’ll say, “So you got 9 in your head” and write the 9 with a circle around it.  Then say, “and then counted 1 more” and write 1 more tally mark with a 10 underneath…like in the green strategy below.  Then, I’ll write the equation the same way–as I talk.

For kinders, my notation may just look like recording how I counted (either all or counting on) and with or without an equation depending on your kids.  That’s an important piece too.

It’s important for kids to see lots of ways to write equations and notations.  And it’s MOST important that you talk as you write so they can connect their language to the written math language.

You may be tempted to have kids come up and write their equation.  Please, please, please do your best to refrain from this.  Not only does it take more time, it’s not the goal of a Math Talk.  It’s the time to model.  Just like in Writer’s Workshop our mini-lesson is where we model write and then we send kids back to independently write and try out what we modeled.

During math problem solving, students will try out notations you model for them.  I’ve had first graders accurately use parentheses in their problem solving notation because I modeled it in Math Talks.   That would’ve never happened if I let kids notate their own thinking in Math Talks.  You model it, they will try it out on their own when they are ready!

Try out the Digital Math Talks for FREE here or find the bundle here.


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