My Favorite Activity – Number Talks!

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When I reflect on one thing that I think has the potential to change the math journey for every child, I think of Number Talks!  I first learned about Number Talks when I purchased Sherry Parrish’s Number Talks book.  I loved that it included example dot patterns, 10frame patterns, rekenrek patterns, and examples for every operation that I could use in my classroom as well as a DVD showing students actually doing number talks from kindergarten to 5th grade. I was floored with their thinking!  There were some times I had to pause the video to try to figure out what the children were doing to solve some pretty sophisticated expressions!  Wow!

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I also love the book Making Number Talks Matter by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker because it not only discusses the strategies that students employ but it also shows how the very same strategies used for simple expressions are applied down the road to larger numbers, decimals, and fractions! So incredibly powerful!!

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Here are the reasons why I love Number Talks so much:

  • students are actively constructing their own thinking in a way that makes sense to them
  • number talk routines get children talking about numbers and their thinking – so many times I have learned about a way of solving a problem that I never would have thought of on my own!
  • students learn that there are many ways to solve a problem (not just one as those who are taught with the algorithm come to believe) and respect the perspectives of others
  • students learn from each other and even learn to critique the work of others as they explain their strategies
  • working on thinking strategically through number talks unlocks the ability to solve problems children would never have previously thought they could! I have asked children who have memorized their math facts to solve 4 x 12 and they have told me, “I haven’t learned that one yet.” When I ask students who have had number talks to solve 4 x 12, they immediately begin thinking about how they can figure it out…and they have a couple of ways of doing it!
  • students are given the opportunity to make connections between topics  that would never have happened when focusing only on an algorithmic way of solving problems….one 4th grade classroom I work in was working on the angles within a circle.  When we did a number talk for 45 x 16, one student answered 720 pretty quickly.  He explained that since he knew there were 8-45 degree angles in a circle, 16 would be 2 circles worth of degrees.  Amazing!
  • number talks allow me to talk to students about having a growth mindset (I love Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler’s work on this!)….students know that if they make a mistake when trying out a new strategy they are growing their brains!
  • students can enter the activity at their readiness level – if I give 7 + 8, students who are still counting on can solve it…but it also allows students who realize a doubles plus/minus 1 strategy could be used or even students who take some away from the other number to make a 10 are all successful and respected!

My favorite reason?

  • Pure magic! I’ve never experienced anything like it!


2 thoughts on “My Favorite Activity – Number Talks!

  1. I’ve heard about number talks but never actual bit the bullet to do it. I’m curious how you introduced it into your classroom. When you introduced it, did students just jump right in? Did you have them watch the DVDs you mention and show an example?


    • One great way to start number talks is to use dot patterns. Try this…. make a row of two dots, then a row of three dots beneath it, and then a row of two dots for a bottom row trying to center the rows. Then, ask the students (doesn’t matter what age level – even adults) to figure out how many are there trying not to count them all. You will be amazed at the responses! Everyone sees it differently! Yet, they all end up with the same number of dots. Beautiful way to start the journey. I find that older students – grades 3-5 – haven’t really developed addition or subtraction strategies so when I put a problem on the board they do the algorithm in their head. That can work with smaller numbers, but at some point our brains can’t handle all those steps. Yet, if you think strategically it can be simpler. You can try 99 + 16. Most people would line them up in their minds and add the 9 + 6, regroup the 1, etc. Yet, if we just take away 1 from the 16, we can rename the problem to 100 + 15 which is so much simpler! And more efficient, too! One more example, if you give 82-58 to adults, they will try to think of the algorithm but there are SO many more ways to think of it! My favorite is since the distance is the same whether we add or subtract the same amount from each, I can think of it as adding two to both – so 84-60….24. So much easier! I never showed the videos to my students…only my college students who are preservice teachers. It is definitely a journey. Just a few minutes a day..but over time the students become more flexible and it is awesome!


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