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Have you considered implementing Number Talk activities into your daily math routine and want a little guidance? If so, you’re in the right place. We’re here to share ideas on how to teach number talks in your classroom
BUT FIRST…WHAT ARE NUMBER TALKS?
You may be asking what, exactly, is this brilliant strategy that so many are talking about.
The idea of Number Talks was originally conceptualized by Ruth Parker and Kathy Richardson.
In a nutshell, Number Talks (also called math talks or math chats) are a quick daily activity where we, as teachers, step back while our students engage in meaningful conversations centered around interesting mathematical problems.
During a number talk, we present our students with a math problem and ask them to mentally solve it without the use of writing tools or manipulatives. Then we ask our students to share not only their answers but the thought processes and strategies they used while problem-solving.
Yes, Number Talks involve mental math. Yes, students must understand math concepts concretely before engaging in mental math. So, yes, we’ll want to be very intentional about the Number Talks we choose to have our students engage in.
The beauty of Number Talks is it’s the perfect medium to bridge the gap between understanding mathematical ideas concretely and pictorially, to understanding them in abstract terms.
It’s important to note that the purpose of Number Talks is not in finding the “right answer”, but is the process our students go through. During Number Talks, students are always asked to explain their thinking. When they do this, it gives them a chance to self-correct, which further deepens their number sense.
So resist the urge to jump in and correct a wrong answer. Instead, we’ll want to use careful questioning techniques as students share their reasoning.
THE POWER OF NUMBER TALKS – WHAT’S OUR WHY?
Ask a child to do something, and you’re oftentimes going to be asked to tell them why. The why is our purpose. It’s what drives us to do the things we do.
I’m guessing that most of us have uttered this phrase at one time or another: “My students just don’t have number sense.”
I know I have.
Well, Number Talks have the power to ensure you’ll never utter that sentence again.
Because the sole purpose of Number Talks is to build number sense.
When children have strong number sense they’re able to:
- solve problems using a variety of strategies
- think flexibly and fluently about mathematics and numbers
- understand, relate, and connect numbers and mathematical concepts
- clarify and communicate their mathematical thinking
- conceptualize mathematical relationships
- choose effective strategies for solving math problems
Number Talks have the potential to make all of the above a reality for our students.
I think it can be safely said that if our first graders are able to do all of the above, we’ll feel like we’ve won the gold medal in the “teaching Olympics”.
HOW TO LEAD A NUMBER TALK
There are three phases to a Number Talk:
- Independent think time to solve the problem
- Partner share answer and strategy used
- Whole class discussion
Let’s go into further depth on each phase.
PHASE 1: PRESENT NUMBER TALK TO STUDENTS & GIVE THEM TIME TO INDEPENDENTLY SOLVE
The first thing we’ll want to do is choose the Number Talk we want our students to engage in. Some of us like to choose Number Talks that spiral through skills in a preview/review manner. And some of us want our Number Talks to emulate the mathematical skills being taught in our core curriculum.
Because the ultimate goal is to get students to engage in conversations about math, we’ll want to choose math talks that are open-ended, meaning they have multiple possible answers or multiple strategies that can be used to solve them.
Have students sit at the carpet area and present the Number Talk to students. During this time we want our students to work independently to solve the problem. We’ll teach our students to give a “private thumbs up” when they have an answer. By giving a “private thumbs up”, our students are able to communicate that they have solved the problem and are ready to share.
It’s important for us to also teach our students who have finished quickly to challenge themselves to either find another solution to the problem or use another strategy to solve the problem. They can express that they’ve done this by putting up additional fingers for each additional answer they came up with or each additional strategy they used. This keeps the environment quiet and minds thinking.
PHASE 2: HAVE STUDENTS SHARE THEIR ANSWERS AND THE STRATEGIES THEY USED TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM
After our students have independently solved the problem, it’s time for them to share their thinking with a partner. During this phase, it’s just as important for students to share how they solved the problem as it is to share their answers. One way we can scaffold this is by giving our students a sentence frame such as this:
- The answer is ___. This is how I solved the problem. (Student explains the strategy used to solve the problem.)
As students are partner sharing, we’ll walk around, listen to their conversations, and make a mental note of a few children we want to have share during the next phase.
Be sure to teach students a hand signal to indicate they are finished sharing, such as a fist to the chest.
PHASE 3: CHOOSE A FEW STUDENTS TO SHARE ALOUD AND ENCOURAGE NUMBER TALK CLASS DISCUSSIONS
During phase 2 we’ll strategically choose students to share aloud to ensure different strategies or different answers will be shared. Call students up, one at a time, to explain and model how they solved the problem.
An important note: We must create an environment where being right or wrong does not matter. Nurturing a growth mindset is key. It is critical that students never feel embarrassed that an answer is wrong, and that they feel empowered to think through the math and make adjustments as needed. If we haven’t fully embraced a growth mindset in our classrooms, Number Talks will not work.
After a student has shared, the remaining students will use hand signals to show if they agree or respectfully disagree with the student and why. This is where the discussion happens.
Here are some ideas for Number Talk Silent Hand Signals:
- When a child agrees with the student sharing, they’ll show the “I agree” silent hand signal by making a fist, extending the thumb and pinky finger out – then wiggling their hand back and forth.
- If a child does not agree with the student sharing, they’ll show the “I respectfully disagree ” silent hand signal by holding their hands out in front of them, palms facing down, then moving hands in a criss-cross motion. (Sorry…I seemed to have lost my picture for that one.)
- When a child has a different answer to the problem or solved the problem using a different strategy, they’ll simply raise their hand.
The key during this phase is to sit back and let students engage in respectful mathematical conversations. They’ll use fabulous critical thinking skills as they analyze and share ideas. So much goodness!
We’ll want to keep the conversations going in a respectful way, but remember that we are just a facilitator during a number talk. Let the students do all the thinking and sharing.
Okay…we’ve covered what a Number Talk is, why we should do Number Talks, and how to lead a Number Talk. Next up are 5 first-grade Number Talks that you can implement today! (If you don’t teach first grade, tweak these Number Talks for your grade level.)
HERE ARE 5 NUMBER TALKS GUARANTEED TO IGNITE STUDENT INTEREST IN OUR FIRST GRADE CLASSROOMS:
NUMBER TALK ACTIVITY NUMBER 1: TARGET PRACTICE
In Target Practice we’ll choose a target number that we want our students to arrive at using any operation they choose (or a combination of operations). We’ll also need to select numbers our students can use in order to arrive at the target number. Write those numbers around the target number. Challenge students to find a way to arrive at the target number using only three of the numbers listed. Share with them that they can use a number more than once.
For this example the target number is 13. Some student responses might be:
- 7 + 2 + 4
- 7 + 3 + 3
- 5 + 5 + 3
- (2 x 5) + 3
- (2 x 4) + 5
- (3 X 3) + 4
NUMBER TALK ACTIVITY NUMBER 2: TARGET NUMBER
Target Number is similar to target practice. However, students can use as many of the numbers listed on the bottom as they want. They are not limited to using three numbers.
This activity involves presenting our students with a target number that they will try to reach using other selected numbers that we’ve provided. We’ll want to share with our 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, let’s say we give our students the target number of 10. We’ve also given them the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 15.
Now we’ll ask our students to brainstorm and share various ways they can arrive at the target number 10. This is a wonderful floor-to-ceiling activity as students who are ready can dabble with using operations other than addition and subtraction. Some answers could include:
- 5 + 5
- 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2
- 4 + 4 + 2
- 7 + 3
- 15 – 5
- (2 x 4) + 2
- 2 x 5
The possibilities are endless. Best of all, every student can engage in this number talk. They can make it as simple or complex as they want.
NUMBER TALK ACTIVITY NUMBER 3: REPRESENT IT!
For Represent It, we show students a number, then ask them to think of as many ways as they can to represent that number.
For example, have students represent the number 12 in as many ways as they can. You will get answers like:
- 10 + 2
- 5 + 5 + 2
- 13 – 1
- (2 x 5) + 2
But….you don’t have to limit students to writing equations or expressions. Allow students to share their ideas in a variety of ways such as…
- Ten Frames (a filled ten frame with two additional dots)
- Tally Marks (ten tally marks with two additional tally marks)
- Base-Ten Blocks (one ten stick and two ones)
Again, the possibilities are endless here. What’s 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!
NUMBER TALK ACTIVITY NUMBER 4: EQUAL TO WHAT?
Equal to What? is a favorite activity. While it’s simple to implement, we are guaranteed to get some great conversations going in our classrooms.
For this activity simply write an equation with numbers missing on one side of the equation. Then we’ll ask our students to figure out what numbers could go into the vacant lines to make the equation true. Challenge students to come up with more than one way to make the equation true. This will really help your students truly understand the meaning of the equal sign.
NUMBER TALK ACTIVITY NUMBER 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, they are being asked to solve. The use of this strategy helps students truly focus on what, exactly, is going on in the story, opposed to randomly adding the numbers together regardless if it makes sense or not.
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?
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 his brother.
Teacher: Will the answer to this question be greater or less than the original number of marbles 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 takes place before students have numbers to manipulate.
Now, instead of several of our 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 we insert numbers into the problem.
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 thinking with the class. Some students may have incorrect answers, and that’s okay because we will be processing through “how” they got their answers. Oftentimes students correct their own thinking as they process.
It is important that we ask students “how” they figured out the answer so students can learn to clearly communicate their thinking as well as learn effective strategies from one another.
NUMBER TALKS – THE BOTTOM LINE
We’ve discussed what Number Talks are, how incredibly beneficial they are to building number sense in our students, how to lead a number talk, as well as learning 5 number talks that can be implemented in any classroom starting today.
The bottom line is this:
Number Talks take very little time each day (5 – 15 minutes) and pack a powerful punch. Not only do they engage our students in rich mathematical conversations where each and every student’s thinking is being valued, but they create a great opportunity for building classroom community and growth mindset. So much bang for our buck happens when we engage students in purposeful and rich math talks.
If you haven’t given number talks a try, please do. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Looking for ready-made number talks to make your teaching life easier? We have K-5 Number Talks Yearlong Bundles on Teachers Pay Teachers. Click here to check them out!
Wishing you nothing but the best.
Team Primary Bliss Teaching