Teachers often shy away from delving too deep into the subject of math, as it can quickly become a source of confusion or frustration for them or their students. This trend is easily magnified by the fact that in early childhood curricula, language arts is often viewed as a higher priority. “Math Talks” or “Number Talks” is a powerful instructional strategy that teachers in the Collaborative’s Innovations project have been using to help bridge this gap. As its name suggests, the Math Talks instructional strategy emphasizes spoken communication around a series of carefully crafted math problems. Generally it is a short (5- to 15-minute) activity, in which students solve mental math problems that build number sense.
Diana Miranda, a second-grade teacher at Jordan Elementary School, regularly uses Math Talks in her classroom. “They challenge my students to be more specific in their reflections,” she said. When sharing strategies with the rest of the class, students learn to clarify and express their thinking, thereby developing strong mathematical language.
All too often, students view math as a series of rules to be memorized and plugged in to solve a problem. Even when they reach a correct answer, they might not comprehend how or why their method works. “I’m not focusing on the perfect answer, but rather a good conversation,” explains Miranda. These conversations have directed Miranda’s students to develop a growing number of strategies, such as making friendly numbers, using doubles, finding landmark numbers, and recognizing the commutative property. These strategies eventually lead to that “perfect answer,” but more importantly, bolster overall math comprehension.
I’m not focusing on the perfect answer, but rather a good conversation.
Discussion can prove beneficial not only for a student doing math problems for 2nd grade who is attempting to explain their thinking, but it is also beneficial for the other students in the classroom as well. Hearing explanations from the point of view of a peer rather than the teacher can often give a fresh perspective on a confusing mathematical idea. Students might also see that their classmates are using different problem-solving strategies, which they can then try out for themselves. Miranda also recommends having students turn-and-talk in the middle of a Math Talks. This way many more students get the opportunity to talk out loud about their thinking. Some students might feel more comfortable justifying their strategies in this smaller setting.
For language arts lovers, research has shown that this discussion-based method of teaching math concurrently improves both math and language skills. In his presentation at our International Symposium on Early Mathematics Education in 2010, Dr. Doug Clements explains that while a strong language arts program will indeed improve students’ language arts scores on standardized tests, a strong math program, specifically one requiring its students to continually explain their thinking, improves both math and language arts scores. He suggests that a rich math environment regularly incites students to “dig down” to explain difficult concepts, teaching them strategies that they can apply in seemingly unrelated areas.
Implementing Math Talks in the classroom does involve a good deal of planning. Selecting problems that will make specific concepts evident to students is the first step. The teacher must also anticipate possible student responses and practice the mathematical model that best represents each student’s thinking. Inevitably, students solve the problem using a method the teacher had not imagined, in which case some level of improvisation is required. In the end, both teacher and student may be challenged, but those challenges can result in increased understanding for everyone involved.