Four instructional moves to get kids talking in math class

With so much attention given to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice, what has risen to the surface for math instruction is the need for students to talk about their mathematical thinking and reasoning. Here are four instructional moves to get kids talking in math class:

1.      Provide rich tasks. There’s not much to talk about when students are filling in blanks or doing simple computation problems. The first step in getting kids to talk is choosing a nice open task like the one below from About Teaching Mathematics, by Marilyn Burns:

Number Sorting

You need:     30 cards or slips of paper, numbered 1 to 30 (these numbers can change depending on the grade level of students)

Sort the numbers in these ways:

-        Into two groups

-        Into three groups

-        Into four groups

Record your sort and trade your paper with another classmate. Each of you tries to figure the rule the other used for sorting.

For more on open tasks see my previous post called, “How to make doing math inviting.”

2.      Use a variety of student groupings. During a whole group discussion, only one person talks at a time, using strategies like Turn and Talk and Think-Pair-Share allows for more student participation. Before teaching a lesson, consider how you will group students for mathematical conversations – partner? small group? whole group?

3.      Set expectations for talk. Sharing with students that there will be time to discuss their mathematical ideas informs them that this will be a regular part of math class. Establishing with students what that will look like and sound like helps create norms and sends the message to students that sharing their ideas is valued.

4.      Utilize prompts/questions. A good prompt/question posted in the classroom will generate rich discussion. Here’s an example of some prompts to use before students begin Number Sorting:

  • Predict another number that belongs in each group and explain to your partner why you think each belongs there.
  • Convince your partner that your thinking makes sense with examples from your sort.
  • Without giving away the answer, provide mathematical hints to your partner if they get stuck.

Using these instructional moves in the classroom takes purposeful planning. The rewards are great for students because when they talk out loud about their thinking, students typically reach a new level of understanding. The teacher is rewarded by observing where students are in their mathematical thinking as they listen in on student discussions. What stumbling blocks have you encountered when trying to get students to talk in math class?