Posted in beginner teachers

Math Talk in the Elementary setting

This post is written by a guest writer, who teaches 1st graders.

The “new” trend in math discussions and the power behind it

Many teachers, including you perhaps, have heard about math talks. You may have heard bits and pieces or even tried it once or twice yourself. But what is a math talk really? How long should it be? What resources do I need? What questions do I ask? As teachers these are common questions we always ask so I wrote this article to help teachers new to math talks start implementing it in their classrooms. Below I will attempt to answer these questions as well as provide links and resources for you to try.

So what is a math talk? To put it simply it is an open ended discussion about a math topic or even just about one math problem with the class. But hidden underneath are some things you should always do in your math talk. One of the most important parts is that the goal of a math talk is to be more student led and the teacher takes a more facilitating role. Of course you cannot do this the first few or even first 10 times you do a math talk but it’s important to know that end goal. Another goal of math talks is for students to share and see strategies for solving problems from other students.   They may even challenge one another’s thinking and a math talk provides a safe environment to do so. A math talk is a forum for students to focus on strategies and thinking and not just the answer. Sometimes I don’t even provide the answer to a problem when I do a math talk. I instead focus on how to find the answer.

How long should a math talk be and how do I do it? You may be surprised that a math talk can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 10. It really shouldn’t go any further because then it starts turning into a mini lesson. Remember a math talk usually starts with just one problem or one question and that can be your focus or learning target for the whole lesson. In an elementary setting we still use TPR or (total physical response) strategies for helping students learn.   For example, my students if they have something to say don’t raise their hands, they simply put a thumbs up in front of their chest. That way again for those students who need more think time they don’t see 7 hands shoot up and then they just rely on their fellow students. A thumb to the side means I am still thinking or I am not sure. A thumbs down means I don’t agree with what was just said or I have another way. It does NOT mean I don’t know. Erin L. Wagganer wrote a great article about math talks as well as some friendly strategies in the link below.

What types of questions should I ask in my math talk? Truthfully there aren’t a set of math questions to ask, but remember you want to build your math talk around a math problem or math strategy. Try to not build it around the answer unless your focus is finding many ways to an answer. Some questions I give my 1st graders are as simple as “What do you notice first? What part do you look at first and why? Is there another way to do this?” For you more active energy teachers you can even say things like, “Help! I need to find a way to do this!” I love a good video example and I love this example below.

The most important part though of a math talk is that you just keep practicing it. Seek out your instructional coach or principal for an outside pair of eyes for help but like any skill you need practice, confidence and patience. Any teacher can do a math talk but great teachers have practiced over and over and turned math talk into a razor sharp tool for successful math learning. Good luck out there.

My name is Bryan Bjorlin and I am a primary grade teacher.  I currently teach 1st grade in Robbinsdale Public Schools but in the past I have taught kindergarten and preschool.  I love to teach young students because I enjoy the challenge of building a strong academic, social and behavior foundation for life long learning.