Number Talks

This year has been my first year as an Intermediate Math Liaison with my district, and it has been a learning curve.  I LOVE teaching math and talking about teaching math, and I have tried to take advantage of any and all opportunities to learn more about best practices in teaching.

One topic that has come up over and over again in different places this year is “Number Talks.”  They were on the conference agenda at the NWMC in October, but I didn’t have a chance to attend a session.  Just before winter break, the District Learning Commons sent out an ad for some new materials – Number Talks by Sherry Parrish and Making Number Talks Matter by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker.  I immediately tried to sign them out, but apparently everyone else in my district did too and I ended up on a wait list.  I finally tracked down copies of both just before the Christmas holidays and there they sat on my shelf.

In January, the other Intermediate Math Liaison and I decided to do a presentation for our district’s annual Zone Conference on Number Talks in the intermediate grades – since they seemed important and we were both intrigued.  So then I really got motivated to crack open those books and see what Number Talks were all about!

And I was hooked.  I dove into Making Number Talks Matter first and – WOW!  What an eye-opening book.  It seems that everything I have pondered about Math is highlighted in here – why kids don’t have number sense and what we can do as teachers to help to develop it.  And they make it seem so easy – it was time for me to explore!

So… what is a Number Talk?  It’s a short (10-15 minute) activity in which students use mental math skills to solve a computation problem.  The teacher’s job is to choose an appropriate problem (or problems), carefully record student thinking and facilitate the conversation.  Students are to solve the problem mentally using strategies that make sense to them and then communicate their thinking clearly.

I started my exploration in my Grade 4/5 class with dot talks as suggested by Humphreys and Parker.  I teach in an inner city school and I am always curious about how suggestions from a book will translate into my particular teaching environment – I am forever making adaptations to things.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  My kids LOVED the activity and every.single.child participated (a first for sure).  They loved looking at the dots and explaining their thinking.  I loved that it was a non-threatening activity and encouraged so many different ideas.

These are the dot talks we did (taken from Making Number Talks Matter by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker).  The students were instructed to figure out how many dots were in each picture, without counting one-by-one.

dot card 1.jpg

Dot card 2.JPG


My kids came up with some ways to figure out the number of “dots” that I hadn’t thought of, and it was challenging but fun to listen carefully and try to make sure I was recording their thinking accurately without putting words in their mouths.

Next up, I threw in some numbers.  I was prepared for this to be less successful, given that numbers are a bit “scarier” than dots, but it also went well.  I used this sequence from Number Talks designed to encourage students to use the take-and-give strategy for addition.


I was so impressed by the strategies that my kids came up with on their own. By the fourth question, we had several strategies in play – some were using take-and-give, some were grouping by place value; some were using the previous answer and adding on. One student talked about “lining the numbers up in her head” (ie. the traditional algorithm), which gave me a chance to think about how I wanted to respond to this as a strategy.  I just named her strategy as the pencil-and-paper way that we often add and put it on the board with the other ideas.  I even had a “wrong” answer – one student mixed up the signs and was multiplying 19×2 for the first question, so I had an opportunity to talk about why making mistakes is important and how we can learn from mistakes as well as “right” answers.  Admittedly, this sequence of questions is pretty easy for Grade 4’s, but I really wanted them to feel like they were successful right from the start.

So – after just a few lessons, I am hooked.  I love the potential that this strategy has to develop number sense in kids.  I love that it is relatively simple, easy to plan, accessible for all learners, takes up very little instructional time and encourages thinking and communication.

And, as for the presentation that sparked all of this – it went well – hopefully we “hooked” a few more teachers on the idea of number talks.  As part of our presentation, we made a planning page (adapted from Making Number Talks Matter) that you can download from Google Drive here.

As a note on the two books – Making Number Talks Matter is written for Grades 4-10 and Number Talks is designed for K-5.  As a 4/5 teacher I think I would use both regularly in my planning.  As an intermediate teacher, I really appreciate the focus on fraction and decimal understandings in Making Number Talks Matter.

Thanks for reading!  Go try out a number talk!



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