Number talks

Number talks were developed as a teaching strategy to increase student understanding of the numerical relationships that serve as the foundation for math rules, which we often just memorize without truly understanding. Number talks strive to helps students compute with accuracy, efficiency and flexibility. These number talks are characterized by purposeful classroom discussions about carefully selected computation problems that prompt a larger discussion about mathematical thinking. As described by Parrish (2010), “[t]he problems in  a number talk are designed to elicit specific strategies that focus on number relationships and number theory.” These short sessions do not replace ongoing math curriculum, but rather take place alongside it. Their overall goal is computational fluency.

Each number talk begins with the teacher sharing a math problem with the class. Students are given time to mentally figure out the problem. The teacher then provides opportunities for students to share their answers and strategies (i.e. mathematical thinking). Number talk problems can be presented in a small-group or whole-group environment. The entire classroom number talk generally lasts 5 to 15 minutes, and gives students the opportunity to share, examine and defend different strategies and solutions.

While this strategy can look slightly different from class to class, number talks typically:

  • Form part of the daily classroom routine
  • Remain short
  • Take place in a cohesive classroom community and safe environment (e.g. a culture of acceptance).
  • Include opportunities for students to think before checking solutions
  • Rely on open-ended problems of varying difficulty
  • Involve interaction with classmates and the teacher
  • Improve students’ self-correction skills

While I did not have the opportunity to test out this strategy with my own students, I was able to observe how a number talk functions during a math PLC held at my host school for junior teachers. The presenting teacher explained how number talks could serve as an activation or introduction at the start of every class by using adding, subtracting, multiplication or division problems. The sample number talk used the following problems:

5 x 5

5 x 50

5 x 49

This quick set of problems moved from more friendly to less friendly numbers, and at each stage participants were instructed to show a ‘thumbs up’ if they had an answer. Some key guiding/prompting questions when discussing different solutions and strategies included:

  • How did you know that?
  • Did anyone have a different strategy?
  • Could you check your answer using a different strategy?
  • Does that make sense?

The teacher accepted each student’s strategy and then went through them all to determine which were reasonable and which were not. This was a quick and efficient strategy for engaging students in purposeful math talk while developing problem-solving and computation skills. It would be a valuable addition to the daily routine in any classroom! 

number talk

Parrish S. (2010). Number Talks, Grades K-5: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions Publications.

Math Perspectives. (2007). Number talks. Bellingham, WA: Math Perspectives.

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