I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about how important it is for children to be able to articulate their thoughts when it comes to reasoning and problem-solving. This can be a real challenge for students as they reach standardized testing age and are required to not just solve difficult problems, but write sentences about how they arrived at their solution.
We can help children develop this difficult skill by creating a low-risk environment for exploring mathematical ideas in the primary grades. Daily math warm-ups that allow students to puzzle over a problem, share their thoughts with a partner, and then listen to the ideas of others are key to developing problem solvers and thinkers!
There are lots of ways to bring oral language into your math lessons. If you do calendar math in the morning, you might bring a daily number talk into your routine. Here you can look at and talk about a number of the day, physically count objects, and explore ways to represent that number. This is a great way to build number sense! The key to number talks or math talks is that the children should be doing the talking. With practice, students can become very able to explain their mathematical thinking.
In addition to talking about numbers and calculations, math talks are an excellent way to deepen students’ abstract reasoning, or their ability to find relationships and patterns, make inferences, and solve complex problems. In fact, many of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice can be applied during math talks. When children have practiced sharing their ideas in a non-threatening environment, they make connections that they would be less likely to make entirely on their own.
Maximizing Your Math Talk Time
As with everything else in the primary classroom, success in math talks is dependent upon the teaching and practicing of routines and procedures. Making anchor charts (together, of course), modeling, thinking aloud, and role-playing are all useful ways to get students to be comfortable with the behaviors required for math talks. Below are some tips for setting your students up for successful math talks!
Ask Open-Ended Questions
For some students, the worry of embarrassment at offering up an incorrect answer is enough to make them keep their thoughts to themselves completely. Part of developing a non-threatening climate for participation is showing students that you–and their peers–value the thought process behind an answer more than the answer itself. Using open-ended questions or prompts can really help in this regard. Open-ended questioning also encourages students to use descriptive and persuasive language. In addition, as they listen to their peers give alternative answers to the same question, they develop the ability to see things from different perspectives. Here are some examples of open-ended questions that can be asked about visual prompts.
Teach Your Students to Look-Think-Share
Having children ponder a problem before turning to a partner to share their thoughts encourages all students to participate. This strategy (sometimes called “turn and talk” or “think, pair, share”) allows every child a chance to speak and requires them to explain their reasoning in a way their peers can understand. To use this strategy, teach students to first look at the problem or prompt, examining it closely to notice all of the details. Then have them think for a moment about the question or problem that has been posed. Next, have students turn to face another child so that they are sitting face-to-face. Teach the children to take turns speaking in soft voices, listening closely when it is their partner’s turn. Finally, open the discussion up to the whole group, encouraging children to share their own thoughts. It can be helpful to occasionally ask students to share their partner’s thoughts to remind them of the importance of careful listening.
Encourage the Use of Complete Sentences
As children develop their ability to explain their reasoning, it is important for them to begin to speak in complete sentences. Some children will have no problem with this, while others will need more support. Work with your students at their levels, offering gentle encouragement in order to show that you appreciate their contributions. To guide your students toward using complete sentences, consider creating an anchor chart with sentence stems that you add to as you hear great sentence examples from students.
Implement Hand Signals to Enhance Discussion
To increase active engagement and participation when you get to the whole group discussion portion of your math talks, consider teaching children to use hand signals. Start simple with a hand signal students can use to indicate that they agree with another student’s response. Many teachers use the American Sign Language sign for “same” for this purpose. Add other signs as you see a need. This article from Edutopia has some useful suggestions!
Sticking to a math talk routine will really make an impact on your students’ abilities to explain their thinking. As children become comfortable with expressing themselves and develop their abilities to really focus on their peers’ ideas, you will begin to see a change in the way they talk about math. As a bonus, the type of thinking students practice during math talks will help them across the curriculum with analysis and communication!
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