Number Talks

What is a Number Talk?

Before answering this question, we need to take a look at the current teaching of number sense and numeracy.

Most classrooms are filled with teachers who teach mathematics as a set of arbitrary rules and procedures to memorize without allowing the students to find out why these rules and procedures actually work.  All of the procedures and standard algorithms that we know from our own learning have come about from patterns and relationships that are tested and over time become the “short-cuts” that we know.  A perfect example is this acronym: D.M.S.B for division (divide, multiply, subtract, bring down).  I have been guilty of force-feeding this to students myself, that is until I had a student question why this worked.  This one small question completely turned my teaching on it’s head!

Parents complain that we are failing in our teaching of mathematics in the fact that we are creating students who are not problems solvers, cannot think for themselves, and end up hating math.  I have many close friends who readily tell me that they are “not good at math”, and treat it as though it’s a hereditary derived thing.   They will say, “I am not surprised that my son/daughter is terrible at math because I was too”!  This is so not the case!  If they had been taught the why behind the math and were able to learn how to look for number relationships to plan their strategies, they would have a better understanding of the rules and procedures that we all know.  They would be able to compute with accuracy, efficiency, and flexibility and become true “mathemagicians”.

A number talk in the Math Lab with 3rd grade
A number talk in the Math Lab with 3rd grade

So….what is a NUMBER TALK?

I had the opportunity to attend a workshop, and read the book on number talks given by none other than the author, Sherry Parish.   I absolutely loved it and made the decision to make Number Talks a part of Chattahoochee Elementary school’s effective math teaching model.  Here is a bit of what I learned and retaught to my teachers:

  • What young children know and understand can never be fully determined through paper and pencil tasks. Teachers can get much more complete and useful information if they watch and interact with the children while they are doing mathematical tasks. Number Talks are one such way to interact with the children. How the children respond reveals their level of understanding.
  • It increases a student’s accuracy (the ability to produce and accurate answer); efficiency (the ability to choose a quick and appropriate strategy for a specific computation problem); and flexibility (the ability to use number relationships with ease in computation).
  • It allows students to share and defend their solutions and strategies, which gives other students the opportunity to learn from their peers.
  • It gives the students chances to grapple with number relationships, apply these relationships to computation strategies, and discuss and analyze their reasoning (Parrish 2010, 14)
  • it builds the foundation for students to become a mathematically powerful individual to make sense of and persevere when solving problems later in their academic career
  • They are SHORT!  An efficient number talk should take between 5-15 minutes depending on what strategy the teacher has chosen to practice.

Here is a  quick example of what can occur in a number talk:

number talk quote

AMAZING!  This 4th grader has demonstrated an understanding of how to apply her knowledge of place value to decompose 348 into 300 + 48, and then divide each “piece” of the dividend by the divisor 6.  I know for a fact, that this young lady passes her “long division” summative with flying colors….

I have repeatedly met with my teachers and showed the growth of their students over the last year in number sense and knowledge of computation strategies, and they are blown away!

Results from a 4th grade division number talk...
Results from a 4th grade division number talk…

I have made it one of my 3 “Effective Math Teaching” non-negotiable’s for this academic school year, and I am hoping to see change…

Here are the strategies that should be taught and practiced throughout elementary school in order to build proficient problem solvers:

Addition and Subtraction

Multiplication and Division

Here is a video of Number Talks taking place in a 1st grade class:

Free to publish

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