Number talks in the middle grades

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Stephanie Fields
Stephanie Fields

By Stephanie Fields
stephanie.fields@jefferson.kyschools.us

The first time I was exposed to the mathematical strategy of number talks, I was in a professional development for elementary teachers.

I was a first-year middle school instructional coach and I thought number talks were a great strategy, but the professional development primarily was geared toward elementary-aged students. When I introduced it to teachers at my school, it did not initially take off.

Several years later, I was fortunate to be involved in the Kentucky Center for Mathematics’ professional learning experience called MaRtI – Mathematics Response-to-Intervention for Middle School. The year-long program gives educators a greater understanding of how middle school students learn mathematics, evidence-based intervention strategies for students who are struggling, and resources and professional knowledge for identifying and analyzing student misconceptions.

During the 2015-16 school year, one of the strategies that was introduced and modeled during MaRtI was this same strategy called number talks, but this time it focused on the middle grades. The resource that was provided to us was a book called “Making Number Talks Matter” by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker. Through my experience with MaRtI, working with teachers in incorporating number talks in the classroom and reading this book, I have seen numerous benefits of implementing this strategy in the middle school classroom.

Number talks are an activity done at the beginning of a mathematics lesson that allows students to work problems mentally, and then verbally share their ideas and strategies with the other students in the classroom. Students practice articulating and clarifying their thought processes. The teacher allows all of the mathematical ideas to come from the students, while he or she carefully charts student strategies, intentionally choosing specific representations to support students in making mathematical connections.

A number talk may take five to 15 minutes and is most effective when done two to three times a week. While time is always a concern in the classroom, incorporating number talks is time well spent. This strategy builds mathematical fluency, numeracy, vocabulary and student confidence, while allowing for the exploration of student thinking.

It is equally important to know what number talks are not. It is not something that is scripted, a teacher sharing a specific strategy their way, all students practicing a concept using the same strategy or students sharing at the board. It is not a time for teachers to favor one strategy over another or a time to stray off topic. This strategy should be a time when the teacher is simply a translator for what the students are thinking.

There are many benefits to middle school teachers using this strategy in their mathematics classrooms. Not only does it build numeracy, but it also engages students in thoughtful math talk. Meaningful mathematical discourse is sometimes difficult to facilitate in the math classroom, so this is a great strategy to incorporate in order to help build that necessary component.

The talks also encourage students to explain their thinking and reasoning, not just give an answer. This allows for a transfer of focus in the classroom for a short time from procedural analysis to conceptual understanding, and opens conversations for exploring new strategies. The most important benefit that I think is essential to the middle grades, developing a classroom community where all students’ ideas are shared and valued.

Seeing students engaged in a number talk is a powerful experience, but getting started with using them in the classroom takes careful preparation. Reading the book “Making Number Talks Matter” is a great place to start. The book walks you through step by step how to work with number talks in the classroom.

After doing many of the talks in our classrooms at Noe Middle School (Jefferson County), here are a few tips to get someone new to the process started:

  • Begin with an accessible prompt;
  • Anticipate different strategies students might use;
  • Think about how you might record or represent your students’ thinking;
  • Let students know the procedures (respect all ideas, no paper, pencil, calculators or hand signals, etc.);
  • Jump in and give it a try. It will surprise you how quickly students will get the hang of number talks and how much progress you will see from the students.

A teacher at my school who was involved in the MaRtI learning experience and has since incorporated this strategy into her own classroom had this to say about her experience with number talks:

My comprehensive students tend to tune out math, but when I told them that it was just a conversation about math, all of a sudden I saw a huge change in their learning. Instead of shutting down and acting as if they had no idea what was going on, they knew much more than they gave themselves credit for. They were using mathematical vocabulary and building off of different ideas of their classmates simply by being engaged in a number talk.”

She currently uses number talks two to three times per week as an opening to her lessons.

Even in an intervention classroom, Number Talks help students to gain confidence in their mathematical abilities. That teacher wrote:

The number talks helped my students feel more confident in talking about math. They were very hesitant at first because they are always worried about getting answers incorrect. Once they noticed that people could see and interpret numbers, patterns, shapes, etc., differently, they were more open to share what they saw.”

The two quotes sum up what we want all students to get out of the mathematics classroom. I am now a firm believer that number talks are a way to get all students thinking and discussing mathematics. They are a powerful tool for not only elementary teachers, but they also serve a greater purpose in the middle school classroom.

 

Stephanie Fields is a goal clarity coach at Noe Middle School (Jefferson County).

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