Math Talk in the Classroom (Part 1)

Kids love to talk, did you know that?  Truth be told, I love to listen to them talk.  The things that come out of their little mouths can be downright hilarious.  If you listen close enough, you’ll also notice kids have such a unique (and sometimes surprising) perspective on everything.  So how can we as teachers tap into this to improve math learning in our classroom?  We do this by making math talk a regular and welcomed part of our daily routine. 

What is math talk?
Math talk is simply talking about math!  There is nothing about math that is off limits to talk about!  Talk about math concepts.  Talk about math discoveries.  Talk about math mistakes.  Talk about math vocabulary.  Talk about how students approached a problem or different ways they solved a problem.  Talk about it all!  Math discussions can be had in small groups or as a whole group.  Teachers, we have to be the ones to intentionally facilitate this and teach our kids the importance of talking about math.

If you haven’t read Classroom Discussions in Math, I highly recommend that you pick it up!  After reading it for a graduate course, I was hooked on math talk! The authors (along with many other math gurus) make a strong case for why it is critical and necessary for kids to talk about math in the classroom.

Math talk can help guide our instruction.  There is no better way to learn what our students are thinking than listening to them share their thoughts.  Talking about math reveals what students know and what they do not know.  Math discussions allow students to reason more deeply and remember more clearly.  Math talk can also develop students’ social skills.

In order to have the most productive math discussions, we have to teach our students how to talk math in a way that is beneficial for their learning and the learning of others.  As we head back to school in the fall, one thing I absolutely plan to incorporate into the first weeks of school is teaching students why and how to talk about math. 

Why do we talk about math?
       Talking about math allows us to share our thoughts.
       Talking about math helps us clarify our own thoughts.
       Talking about math helps us understand what we do and do not understand.
       Talking about math prepares us for the future.
Students will be more willing to participate in math discussions if they understand why they are doing it.  When we talk about math, it forces us to organize our own thinking so that we can share our thoughts with others.  When we listen to others talk about math, it gives us the chance to compare our reasoning with the reasoning of others and decide how they fit together (how’s that for Mathematical Practice #3?).  Math talk teaches us how to interact with each other in a positive way, while working towards a common goal.

How do we talk about math?
I plan to come up with our math talk expectations together as a class, but I will be sure to guide students towards several key ideas.
       We will be kind and respectful at all times.
       We will all participate in math discussions. 
       We will listen and respond to the ideas of others.
       We will support one another so that we all can learn.
It is important that a “safe” environment is established so that students feel comfortable sharing their ideas.  Students must understand that listening is just as much for their own benefit as it is for the speaker.  We cannot learn if we do not listen.  We cannot contribute to the conversation if we have not first listened.  Math talk works best when everyone is working together towards learning. 

I hope you are convinced how powerful incorporating math talk into your daily routine can be for your students’ learning! I can’t wait to share with y’all the activities I have planned for the first weeks of school to set the stage for a year of amazing math talk!  If you're ready for some fun, check out Math Talk in the Classroom (Part 2)!

Chapin, S. H., O'Connor, M. C., Anderson, N. C., & Chapin, S. H. (2013). Classroom Discussions in Math: A teacher's guide for using talk moves to support the common core and more, K-6.

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