Number Talks Work

In the last little while, I have had the pleasure of exploring “number talks” or “math talks” with a few Grade 4 & 5 teachers.  I’m using the book “Number Talks” by Sherry Parrish, which advertises that it will “help children build mental math and computation strategies”.  I can attest that it indeed does that.


So first, what is a number talk?  Here are some resources that explain it better than I can. I also understand that Jo Boaler has done significant work in this field.

A video (Grade 5 division)

An article:

I’m going to admit something terrible.  When I taught in Grade 5, I used to avoid the mental math components of my math textbook.  The kids found it hard.  And now I know they were probably a bit too prescriptive by telling kids how to think, instead of honouring the different ways students might tackle a math operation.

Earlier this year, a Student Work Study teacher lent me a book on “Number Talks” and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a group that is exploring them at one of my schools until recently.  Now I am exploring them with teachers at all 4 of my schools.  The more I do them, the more I learn.  Moreover, they are FUN!  I love seeing the different ways of thinking around the same math question and when this registers for the students in the class it’s a bonus too.

Most recently, I did a number talk in a Grade 5 class as part of a “CIL-M” day – where two of us co-taught a lesson that was designed by a group of teachers.  I was the lead teacher and for the “minds on” portion of our three part math lesson, I modelled a number talk.  The teacher really liked how her students responded in class.  We decided to explore them a little further together and set up a bunch of consecutive dates where I could come in and model.

We focused on multiplication with her class, and in just three number talks we could definitely say that the students moved forward strategy-wise.  They started using the strategy “partial products” for instance which we observed they were not using in our first talk.  Her students were engaged and eager to share how “they saw the math in their heads”.  It was neat to see them see the math different ways and trying out a “new” strategy.

On my last day, she threw me a bit of a curve ball, asking me to model a division math talk (which I had never done).  I studied and learned a couple of great (new) ways to do division mentally.

The division number talk I did in that class is probably my favourite to date.

At the end of it, the teacher and I had an excited talk about how we learned two new ways to divide – one was “partial quotients” and the other was the strategy named “proportional reasoning”.  I have had the pleasure of trying to teach Grade 5 students to do long division (it’s not easy), so I could understand her enthusiasm!  Now all of them could access division, it was not a matter of memorizing the long division rules.

“Number Talks” have trained me to listen to students to try and name the strategy they are using to arrive at their answer.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I might not know the name of the strategy and so I had to look it up afterwards (the kids and I come up with a temporary name).  I have also done a number talk using sample questions from a textbook or by using decimals and fractions instead of the whole numbers found in the book.  Once you are comfortable with the format, you can use anything (even EQAO multiple choice practice questions for instance).

Sometimes the student strategy can’t be found in the book – and how wonderful for that student to have the strategy named after them and to see them get creative in their thinking.

What number talks really do is help teachers identify what strategies their students are using so that perhaps they can encourage them to move to more efficient strategies.  I would likely have some guided math associated with this in small groups after some observation to help move them forward.

Perhaps too, I modelled taking a risk in front of the teacher by doing a last minute division talk for the first time.  I’m really excited because she is now trying the next talks on her own.  In fact, the classes where they are truly being implemented are in those classes where the teacher and I worked together over a few days.  I’m going to touch base, follow up and make sure they are still going well.  But I know that if I had my own class, I would be doing these talks.  I’ve seen what they can do after a week, but imagine what they could do after a year… it is truly transformative (and not just for the students).

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