Number Talks

Want your students to increase fluency by discussing and critiquing structure, patterns, and mathematical properties? Try number talks!
127 teachers like this strategy
Number Talk Introduction
3:30

About This Strategy

Number talk is a relatively quick discussion activity that helps students strengthen their number sense and computation skills. First, students solve a problem mentally, using their mathematical knowledge and fluency skills. Then, they share their individual solutions to the problem, expressing and critiquing various approaches they used to solve the problem. This structured approach to problem solving can be used in any grade-level Math classroom.

Implementation Steps

10 minutes minutes
  1. Give your students a Math problem to solve on the whiteboard, smart board, slide, or any display method that is available. This should be a problem that takes no more than 1-2 minutes to solve individually and should be content that the students are already familiar with. Number talks are meant to be solved mentally, so students should not have manipulatives, calculators, etc.

  2. Give students private think time (1-2 minutes) to solve the problem mentally (see the Special Education Modification below for further information on this implementation step). There are several approaches the teacher can take to assess completion rate, including:

    • Hand signals - have students give a thumbs up in front of their body when they are done, or have students hold up a number with their hand (1, 2, 3) to show how many different approaches they identified to solve the problem. This will help with sequencing when students begin to share out.  

    • Timer - Set a timer for 1, 1.5, or 2 minutes, depending on the problem. Give all students equal amounts of time to complete the problem. It's important to note that this may lead to some students not completing the problem.

    • Try not to have students raise their hands when they are ready. This may make other students feel rushed or inferior because they weren't able to complete the problem as quickly as their peers.

  3. Once all students have completed the problem, call on a student to individually share out how he or she approached the problem and what his or her thinking was. Record the response on the board, specifically focusing on the process not on the product. After a student shares out, ask the class to evaluate the recorded response, agreeing or elaborating on the answer, or providing a critique or explanation if there are errors. Make note of the class responses.

  4. Ask for another student to share a different approach to solving the problem. Follow step 3 with this new student. Follow steps 3-4 with multiple students until the teacher has reached the allotted time for this activity or until all approaches to the problem have been shared and discussed as a class.

  5. Scaffolding and Support Ideas:

    • Modeling the first few number talks will help students understand what the goal and discussion expectations are.

    • Intentionally choose problems that will both flesh out common misconceptions and that will have multiple approaches that are easy to identify.

    • Sentence stems may help students that struggle with verbalizing their thoughts. Ideas include:

      1. The first step I took to solve this problem is...

      2. I wasn't sure how to solve this problem, but I did notice...

      3. I agree with ________ because ________...

One suggestion I would make to student's name  work is _________ because ________...

To learn more about this strategy, consult the Illustrative Math Grade 6 Course Guide and search for Number Talk and/or consult this Illustrative Math 6th grade lesson plan.

Number Talks for Enrichment

Number talks can be used as an enrichment activity either with a small group or the entire class. By changing the difficulty of the problem or the type of question asked, students can be pushed into rigorous math extensions in this strategy.

Implementation steps:

  • Follow the same implementation steps, but choose a problem that students are not explicitly familiar with. They may have a general sense of the mathematical skills needed to solve the problem, but the problem should require higher order thinking and collaboration.

Algebra Talks

Algebra Talks build students' algebraic thinking. Using Algebra Talks in the warm-up of a lesson provide students with an opportunity to look at expressions and to use their mathematical knowledge to mentally solve these problems.

Implementation steps:

  • Display an expression on the board. If you are using the Open Up Math Curriculum, you will be given expressions to display during the Algebra Talk warm-up activity.
  • Provide students with an opportunity to think and solve the problem. 
    • Consider giving them a hand signal to use when they have an answer and a strategy.
  • Ask students to share out the strategies they used to solve the expression and record these strategies for the class to see. 
    • Ask students to explain their thinking as they share out their strategy and answer.
    • Enable students to share a few different strategies for the class to see, but stick to the allotted time.

To learn more about Algebra Talks, consult the Open Up Math Course Guide as well as this resource. These resource require a free log in and password to access.

Number Talks for Daily "Do-Now" or Bell Ringer

Number talks can be used as a daily, structured routine to launch the start of class each day by making the daily "do-now" or bell ringer a number talk.

Implementation steps:

  • Follow the same implementation steps, but make number talks a daily routine at the beginning of each class. The problems could be a review on the content from the day before or a launch into new material, depending on the teacher preference. Consider setting a timer during this activity and using a composition notebook or binder for the daily number talk to keep the routine structured and expectations clear and easy to follow.

EL Modification

Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Number talks are a great way for English learners to apply their mathematical language skills. Learners are supported to use target vocabulary, share mathematical thinking and evaluate and compare their solutions with their peers’.

English learners are required to read problems and write their solutions, listen to peers’ responses and share their thinking verbally. In order to support English learners consider the following modifications:

Modifications:

  1. Differentiate materials. Consult English learners language levels to create appropriate prompts so learners can focus on solutions and critiques. Provide supports like number lines, manipulatives, etc. as needed. See the “Descriptions of What English Learners “Can Do” at Various Language Levels” resource in the resource section below for more information. 

  2. Model Number Talks. Use a simple equation or previously solved problem to think aloud or role play to model for all students use of target language and mathematical practices. 
  3. Provide and practice talk frames. English learners at lower levels of proficiency may benefit from scripted sentences to use when sharing and comparing their thinking. Practice discussion frames chorally to increase ease of use and confidence. Consider posting an anchor chart for easy reference. Consider posting language objectives for the whole class to use as a target. See the “Number Talk Sentence Starters for English Learners” resource in the resource section below for more information. 
  4. Post target vocabulary. English learners at all levels of proficiency need to practice academic and content specific vocabulary. Create an anchor chart or math word wall that includes the unit’s important vocabulary and reference it during number talks.
  5. Provide a variety of ways to express learning. Newcomers, learners at lower levels of proficiency or learners in a silent period may need an alternative to spoken responses. Allow learners to employ drawing, pointing, choosing between options, matching or other non-linguistic means to express themselves when called. Accept single words, chunks or phrases as full responses. See the “Descriptions of What English Learners “Can Do” at Various Language Levels” resource in the resource section below for more information. 
  6. Familiarize yourself with students' language abilities using the WIDA Can-Do descriptors shared below, and adjust the activity accordingly.

    • For example, if you have a lot of students who are in the 1-2 range, frame questions so that students can respond to "Wh" questions, encourage the use of visuals, or help students recognize similarities or differences in the mathematical prompt. 

    • If you have more students in the 3-4 range, provide sentence frames and precise language for students to use in their response. 

    • In classes with a range of English language levels, modify the prompt and sentence frames to support all students' language development. For example, you could ask "What did you do first to solve the problem?" to students at a WIDA level 2 and "Describe the steps you took to solve the problem and explain your steps" to students with a WIDA level of 5. 

  7. Practice with a very simple mathematical problem or a non-content example first to give students an opportunity to practice their oral language. 

  8. Display an anchor chart with precise academic language you hope students will use. 

  9. Practice a choral response of precise academic language so that students hear the word multiple times, can practice it aloud in a low-stakes setting, and recognize correct punctuation. 

  10. Use sentence frames to prompt to students to share their thinking, such as: 

    • The way I thought about the problem was... 

    • The answer I got was... 

    • The first thing I did was... 

    • I wasn't sure how to solve this problem but I noticed... 

  11. Use sentence frames to prompt students to respond to others' thinking such as: 

    • I agree/disagree with... because... 

    • I thought about the problem in a different way... 

    • I can restate what X said.... 

  12. Model this activity: As you model, refer to an anchor chart with the sentence frames or the word wall with terms that you hope students will use.

Special Education Modification

Nedra Massenburg
Special Education Specialist

Use of Number Talks is an excellent way to engage in mathematical content for students with disabilities.  By helping students strengthen their number sense and computation skills through problem solving and discussion, teachers will help build their toolbox to engage with content to begin helping them build overall investment in their learning.

Number Talks skills require significant executive functioning skills (including focus, organization, working memory, etc.), reading, written skills and/or verbal expression skills.  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas, consider the following modifications:

Modifications:

  1. Teachers who use Number Talks should be mindful of student disability types and needs in addition to formative data when assigning partners and/or groups; this ensures that students are paired strategically to support development of mastery without increasing frustration. 

  2. Use or modify structured handouts to help students with task initiation as well as provide clear benchmarks (bolded words, bulleted lists) to assess task completion during Number Talks.  Teachers can provide Post-it note "hint cards" with scaffolded hints on the post-it notes or Anchor charts showing the basic steps to solve the problem.   See "Meeting Students' Needs in Number Talks” and “Are Number Talks an Effective Strategy for Students with LDs?” in the resource section below for more information.

  3. Use visual timers and verbal reminders to help learners with task initiation and task completion when using Number Talks.  

  4. If multiple teachers are present in a classroom, careful thought should be put into co-teaching models and how they integrate into a differentiated lesson plan using Number Talks.    See the "How to Choose a Co-Teaching Model" and “Differentiation Within the Inclusion Classroom Model” in the resource section below for more information.

Questions to Consider

  • How could you use number talks to support students to justify their thinking?

  • How could you model a strong justification to support students?

  • How could you modify this strategy for your students?

  • How could you guide yours students through a number talk?

  • What task would be appropriate for a number talk to get my students communicating mathematically?

Tech Tools

Padlet

  • Padlet is a collaborative app that allows you to post text, videos, and images to a shared space.

  • How this tech tool supports this strategy:

    • The teacher can post the number or topic for the number talk on a padlet. Students can then have time to think about how they will solve the problem. Once they've had think time, students can post their solutions via text or video/audio recording to the wall. Students can view and comment on each others posts.

 

Google Slides

  • Google Slides allows you to create, present, and annotate slides from any device.

  • How this tech tool supports this strategy:

    • The teacher can post the number or topic for the number talk on a Google Slide. Student can then have time to think about how they will solve the problem. Once they've had think time, the students can call out their solutions/responses and the teacher can annotate their responses onto the slide. This can become a daily launch for class that saves easily on the cloud.

Related Lessons

  • Explore this lesson by 4th grade Math teacher Kara Nelson to see how Kara uses a number talk to encourage students to represent and express their thinking using a number line model and hundreds grid.

  • Explore this lesson by 9th grade Math teacher Jessica Uy to see how Jessica uses a number talk to help students make mathematical connections, talk about their individual thinking and approaches, and to critique their peers thinking.