making number talks matter – post #1

Posted on: October 10th, 2015 by jnovakowski 2 Comments

Since returning to my role as a teacher consultant in our district, I have been a huge advocate for Number Talks. I appreciate the focus on flexible thinking, number sense and how well they provide an opportunity for students to think about and practice mental math and personal strategies. Our current math curriculum as well as our redesigned curriculum in BC have a significant focus on mental math, personal strategies, and computational fluency – all strong reasons for the use of Number Talks.

Although I have had similar math discussions with my students over the years, I was introduced to the idea of a formalized, intentional number talk by Sherry Parrish at a NCTM conference. I have recommended her book to our schools and often use the accompanying DVD as a staring point for discussion with teachers.

Making Number Talks MatterI was excited to hear about a new book being published in this area and ordered it to add to my summer reading list – Making Number Talks Matter by Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker. In the introduction the authors acknowledge Kathy Richardson as being the originator of number talks which didn’t surprise me at all. Kathy greatly influenced my thinking about math teaching and learning in the early part of my career and I continue to use her resources today.


I didn’t get around to reading the book over the summer, but when I saw the post about an online book study on twitter, I signed up. Hundreds of teachers from around the world are participating through twitter, Facebook and the Teaching Channel’s website. More information can be found HERE. Although it is too late to formally register, you can still follow along through twitter and Facebook. Each week we look at one chapter from the book, with a question being posted each day for us to consider and respond to.

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As I work alongside teachers in their classrooms and participate in this book study, I am looking forward to considering some new ways of thinking about Number Talks.

I had a short visit to Caitlin Blaschuk’s grades 3&4 class at Byng Elementary where I used the number talk example from Chapter 1 of the book, 63-27.


The students were able to share all sorts of strategies, including using place value to decompose, using negative integers and using the open number line.

Building on the first question, I would typically next ask 463-27 to use a number string but today we jumped to 463-127.


The students right away that they just needed to really consider the 400-100. Because open number lines were a bit of a focus at the school last year, I asked if any of the students wanted to think through that strategy and one student started us off and then it became a bit of a collaborative effort.

I noticed a few things as we engaged in our number talk, some of which are because some of these students have two years of experience with number talks and others because the classroom teacher has set up structures and a learning environment that foster successful number talks. The students use specific math language when they are talking with each other and when they are sharing their strategies to the whole group. I heard words such as decomposing, finding the difference and annexing. The students have predetermined number talks partners so there is no time sorting that all out during the number talk. The students turn and look at each other and take turns sharing and listening. The students seemed comfortable sharing their ideas and taking risks and what I found particularly noteworthy was the way students built on each others’ ┬áideas and supported each other. They were also able to compare their strategies and say how their strategies were the same and different from one of their classmates. With less than a month into the school year, this class demonstrated so many of the reasons why I think number talks are so powerful – building a math community, encouraging mathematical discourse and valuing flexibility and fluency in mathematical thinking.



2 Responses

  1. Hi Janice,
    I am the Math Intervention Teacher and a Teacher Leader for PLC’s at our school. We are trying to focus more on getting talk into our math time. We purchased a new curriculum (Math Expressions), that has “Math Talk” incorporated into the lessons. For example, the lessons give guiding questions to get the students thinking about a problem (“What do we need to find? What do we know? How do we find the cost of 24 packages if we know 1 package is $2? etc.) I am also reading the book Making Number Talks Matter, and trying to fuse the two together. I know the scripted questions have more of a direct, one answer…but hopefully soon students will be able to see multiple ways to do things.

    I have started some number talks with the 6th grade class-we jumped right into what they were working on in the curriculum (finding area of a triangle, parallelogram and trapezoid). The students really seemed to enjoy this time. However, I’m not sure the classroom teacher is continuing this practice.

    How do you suggest I start helping teachers work NumberTalks/Math talk into their daily routine?

    • jnovakowski says:

      Hi there Robin-
      I keep saying (whenever I have the opportunity) that number talks are a routine that should just be part of what we do every day in math class – a way to open our time together, encourage discourse and build a mathematical community. I find that after a demo or two in a classroom, when teachers see their students engaged in talking about math and the big thinking that is going on, they see the value. It really can just be 10 minutes or so if you focus on one question so time is not the issue. There are other routines that are similar – estimation180, wodb, etc that all build mathematical thinking and talk and some teachers like to vary these routines as their openings – that might be a good way to approach this. To me, Number Talks hit at so many aspects of our curriculum (not sure where you are from…) in terms of both intentional pratice of content and strategies, application of mathematical language, reasoning, problem-solving, communicating, representing, etc. Let me know if you have any questions! Janice