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Using Number Talks to Create Expert Problem Solvers


What is a Number Talk?

A Number Talk is a student-centered discussion about numbers and math concepts that is facilitated by the teacher. Number Talks are centered around student’s explaining their unique thinking about how they mentally solved a given problem using strategies they’ve learned in the classroom.

Number Talks generally take anywhere from 5-15 minutes to complete and can be easily incorporated into your regular math block.

A Little Prep Goes a Long Way

To facilitate a Number Talk, you’ll only need to prepare a relevant, mentally solvable question, and something to record students’ thinking on and with — such as a whiteboard or chart paper and the necessary marker.

As a teacher, I like to have a list of responses on hand that encourage students as they share their thinking without implying that their thinking is correct or incorrect. Some of these responses might include, “I like how you used your strategies!” or “Can you tell me more about that?” These kinds of responses are crucial to a successful Number Talk, because they communicate that all answers are acceptable as long as they can be explained — encouraging students to feel comfortable when sharing with their classmates.

Before you start your first Number Talk in your classroom, I would suggest creating an anchor chart to post as a visual reminder of student expectations during this time. You’ll need to explain, model, and remind your students of the expectations of a Number Talk, especially for the first few weeks. Here are a few reminders I would suggest including on your anchor chart, along with pictures (see example in the “Resources” section):

  • Show a secret, silent thumbs up on your chest when you have one strategy to share. (Remember to keep it a SECRET thumbs up so that no one feels rushed and everyone has enough time to think.)
  • Show 2, 3, 4, or 5 fingers if you have more than one strategy to share.
  • Have some kind of signal that students can use to show that they agree with someone else’s thinking (i.e.: silent claps, snaps, double thumbs up, etc.).
  • Use only respectful, kind language when speaking with each other and asking questions.

How Do You Implement Number Talks?  Five Easy Steps

The key to Implementing Number Talks in your classroom is consistency. By making Number Talks part of your math routine, you and your students will know what to expect and it will require less time to complete each Number Talk.

After you have created your anchor chart, modeled the proper actions, and have practiced with your students, you’re ready to start your first Number Talk! Start by choosing an appropriate problem. Then, follow these five simple steps:

  1. Present a problem that can be solved mentally and covers a concept your students have learned before. (1 minute)
  2. Give enough time to allow students to solve the problem mentally. (1 minute)
  3. Allow volunteers to share their answers ONLY at first. Then, after listening to some answers, allow a few students who shared the correct answer to explain how they solved the problem to their classmates. (2-3 minutes)
  4. Visualize these students’ thinking and how they solved the problem, such as writing out what they’re communicating on the whiteboard or chart paper, as they share and the class discusses it together. (3-4 minutes)
  5. Allow other students to ask questions, share their agreement or similar thoughts, or ask for clarification about parts they were confused about in solving the problem. (1 minute)

Work through these steps each time you do a Number Talk and your students will be leading themselves through the process before you know it!

Example Math Block Routine

An example of a 50-minute math block routine that includes a Number Talk might look as follows:

  • 5-10 minutes: Number Talk (whole group)
  • 5 minutes: Journal warm-up about the current concept (quick write, example problem, etc.)
  • 10 minutes: Direct instruction and notes on the current concept or activity
  • 15-20 minutes: Independent practice of the current concept (while you meet with small groups)
  • 5 minutes: Lesson summary/exit ticket in journal (quick write, example problem, explain thinking, etc.)

If you happen to have more than 50 minutes in your math block, then you could incorporate some stations activities that review skills your students have already learned as well as concepts that your students are currently learning and practicing.

Example Number Talk Problems by Grade Level

Kindergarten: This is the number 8. How can you show the number 8?

First Grade: How do you solve: 10 + 9

Second Grade: What number is 7 less than 20?

Third Grade: How do you solve: 354 + 1 1 1

Fourth Grade: How many ways can you make 348?

Fifth Grade: How do you solve: 215 divided by 5

Wasn’t that easy? Now you have a simple, quick way to build your students’ confidence in their problem-solving skills, as well as build a community of learners that respond to each other in a positive, kind way. Give Number Talks a try in your classroom for the next two weeks, and let me know how your students benefitted from them. Leave a comment below!


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