5 Number Talks to Try This Week

5 Number Talks to Try This Week

Have you dabbled in number talks with your students only to find that they quickly get disengaged? 

Or have you thought about using number talks in your classroom, but are unsure where to begin?  If so, we’d like to share 5 ideas that you can implement this week. 

But first....A Little About Our Number Talk Journey

When we first dabbled in number talks we followed a prescribed set of exercises.  Our number talks consisted of only dot cards, ten frames and expressions.  We explored one number for days at a time, while students shared various ways they saw “that” number.  The students were so engaged in the beginning. 

It was magical. 

They could barely contain themselves as they shared their thinking with their partners. 

Then, one day, the magic began to fade. 

The whole experience began to become mundane at best. 

The students became disengaged. 

We became deflated and began to question why we were using valuable time each day dedicated to number talks.  Were we getting the best “bang for our buck” with this exercise?   Could we make better use of that time? 

Should we do number talks at all?

As we were discussing our frustrations with number talks, we began to do what we ask our students to do all the time, problem solve. 

We asked ourselves: what is our end goal? 

We decided that our end goal was to nurture true mathematical curiosity and wonderment in our students.  

We wanted our students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  We wanted our students to comfortably muddle through mathematical problems without fear of being “wrong”. 

We wanted them to solve problems in a way that made sense to them, and to fine tune their processing as the year progressed.  We wanted our students to be flexible thinkers who, with strong number sense, could clearly articulate their thinking and defend their answers to others. 

Upon further reflection, we realized that number talks nurture the goals we had for our students, we just needed to think out of the box while planning them to keep student interest high.

There is nothing wrong with dot cards, ten-frames and expressions (we use them all the time), but number talks will not lose their magic if you spice them up a bit with a variety of activities.   

We have chosen 5 of our favorite number talks to share with you!  Just adapt them for your grade level and go!  You've got this!

1. Make it True
 Number Talk Idea - Make It True

In Make it True you present an untrue equation or inequality to your students and challenge them to make it true.  This makes a great number talk because there will be a variety of ways to make any equation or inequality true, and you can get some great conversations out of this activity.  It works like this: 

Write an equation or inequality on the board.  Choose an equation or inequality where students must think, but one that students can solve mentally.  In other words, choose a problem that is not too easy, but not too hard.  This would be an example of an equation you might use in a first-grade classroom:

3 + 5 = 6 + 1

First ask your students to think about if the equation is true and, if not, why not – what’s the problem. 

In this case 3 + 5 is 8 and 6 + 1 is 7.  Eight is not equal to seven.

Once your students realize that the equation is untrue, ask your students to think about what they could change to make it true.    Encourage your students to think of as many ways as possible to make the equation true.  You will get answers such as:

Change the 3 to a 2.

Change the equal sign to a greater than sign.

Change the 6 to a 7. 

The possibilities with this activity are endless and the concept is easily adaptable across grade levels.  

Come on!  Give it a try!   We promise your students will be eager to figure out the challenge at hand. 

2. Target Number
 Number Talk Idea - Target Number

Target Number involves you presenting your students with a target number that they will try to reach using other selected numbers you provide.  Share with your students that they must use the numbers given to arrive at the target number and that they can use any operation (or combination of operations) they want. 

For example, give your students the target number of 20.  Then give them the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 21.  Ask your students to brainstorm and share various ways they can arrive at the target number 20.  Some answers could include:

2 x 10

5 + 5 + 5 + 5

22 – 2

10 + 10

(21 – 2) + 10

The possibilities are endless.  This activity can be done with whole numbers, fractions and decimals.  But best of all, all of your students will have a point of entry into this number talk.  They can make it as simple or complex as they want. Our students eat this up!  Yours will too!

3. Represent It!
  Number Talk Idea - Represent It!

While we do believe that mental computation is important, there are times we break out the whiteboards so students can keep track of their ideas (okay number talk police...we know we are breaking the rules a bit here but...it works for us).  Represent It is one of the activities that we do this for.  For Represent It, we show the students a number, then ask them to think of as many ways as they can to represent that number.  We typically give students a minute or two to brainstorm their ideas prior to partner sharing, then sharing aloud. 

For example, give the number 15 and ask students to represent it in as many ways as they can.  You will get answers like: 

 20 – 5

16 – 1

10 + 5

6 + 6 + 3

Ten Frames

Tally Marks

Base-Ten Blocks

One ten and five ones

Half of 30

One-fourth of 60 

Again, the possibilities are endless here.  What is great about this number talk is that it encourages students to be extremely flexible in their thinking as they work to discover multiple possibilities.  So.  Much.  Fun!

4. Balance the Scale

Number Talk Idea - Balance The Scale

Balance the Scale is a favorite activity in our classroomsWhile it’s simple to implement, you will get some great conversations going in your classroom.  You can approach this activity in a couple of ways.  You can give students problems that have multiple answers, or give students problems that have one answer but are conducive to students using multiple ways to solve the problem. 

For this activity simply draw a scale on your board, then draw shapes on each side with numbers in some of the shapes.  Ask your students to figure out what numbers could go into the vacant shapes to make the scale balanced.  This will really help your students with truly understanding the meaning of the equal sign

5. Numberless Word Problems

 A numberless word problem is a story problem that is presented without numbers so that students can focus solely on what information they need to solve the problem and what, exactly, students are being asked to solve.  Use of this strategy stops students from randomly applying meaningless operations using the numbers they see in a word problem. 

Here is an example of a numberless word problem.

Brad had some marbles.

He gave some to his brother.

How many marbles does Brad have now? 

After you present such a problem to your students, the number talk might go something like this. 

Teacher:    Who can tell me how many marbles Brad has now?

Student: We can’t answer that question.  We don’t have enough information.

Teacher:  Hmmm…. You’re right.  Think about what information you need to figure out that answer.  Put a thumb up when you have an answer.  Turn and tell your partner what you think.  (Allow time for students to share their ideas.)

Teacher:  Seth, what information do you need in order to answer the question?

Seth:  We need to know how many marbles Brad had in the beginning and how many marbles he gave to his brother?

Teacher:  Why?

Seth:  Because we are trying to figure out how many marbles Brad has left.  He had some in the beginning, then he gave some to is brother.

Teacher:  Will the answer to this question be greater or less than the original number of Marbles that Brad had?  Put a thumb up when you have an answer.  Turn and tell your partner your answer and why.

Kenzie:   I think the answer will be less because Brad gave some marbles away.

Look at all the thinking that has taken place before students have numbers to manipulate.  Now, instead of several of your students randomly adding the numbers in the word problem together (maybe this isn’t an epidemic in your classroom, but it used to be in ours), they are thoughtfully processing the problem and working to answer the question.  It is at this point that you apply numbers to the problem.  For example:

Brad had 18 marbles.

He gave 9 to his brother.

How many marbles does Brad have now?

Teacher: Put your thumb up when you have an answer.  Turn and tell your partner how many marbles Brad has now, and how you figured out the answer.

Call on individual students to share their answers and their thinking with the class.  You may have students who have incorrect answers, and that’s okay because you will be processing through “how” they got their answer.  Oftentimes students correct their own thinking as they process.  It is important that you ask students “how” they figured out the answer so student can learn to clearly communicate their thinking and students can learn effective strategies from one another. 

If you have a curriculum with word problems, simply use those word problems but remove the numbers initially. 

If you need addition and subtraction word problems, we have numberless and numbered word problems to 20, and numberless and numbered word problems to 100 – just print and go.

We also have number talk programs for grades kindergarten through fifth.  Click on the links to check them out!  They just might save you TONS of planning time.  














There you go! 

If you are in a rut with number talks, or have not yet given them a try, we encourage you to try these activities this week. 

You will be amazed as you watch your learners grow in their mathematical thinking. 

Thank you for stopping by.   

We'd love to hear from you!  What are some of your favorite number talk activities?  

Happy Teaching!


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  • susan Jones - January 10, 2018

    10 is going to be my first target number since i need to introduce sums of ten. Love this idea and balance the scale.

  • Carrie - December 31, 2017

    I can’t wait to try these numbertalks in the classroom. I think the kids will like having these as a routine, and get to choose which talk they want to do. Do you have these in editable template form? I looked on TPT, but could only find the sentence frames for the number talks.

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas!

  • Donna - December 09, 2017

    I am excited to try the numberless word problems. What a great way to get students thinking about the process of solving a word problem. Thanks for sharing such detailed descriptions for all the components.

  • Marc - July 22, 2017

    Only been introduced to number talk recently although the skills used plenty in sessions. I really like the structure to a session that requires mental agility and collaborative discussions .
    Thanks for sharing, I look forward to playing!

  • Christine reese - June 04, 2017

    I really like target number. We will start with a lower number., but what a great idea! Balancing equations was something I feared to try until 2nd or even 3rd grade, but I think with small numbers this will be very doable with my little ones. Thank you so much for the ideas I’ve never tried!

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