6 Ways to Encourage Math Talk for Elementary Students

The picture shows 4 students of elementary age gathered around and working on something together. The text reads "6 ways to get students talking about math".

Let’s dig into some math talk! Common Core together with a large body of research has made it clear that encouraging talking and discourse during math has a huge impact on student thinking. It’s not enough to just know the right answer, instead students have to communicate their understanding, think critically, and build upon other’s ideas.

But what do you do when you ask “why?” and hear nothing but crickets? And how do we get students to have an academic discussion when they’re still learning the language of instruction? 

So let’s explore some strategies for encouraging math discourse and getting the math talk moving in an elementary bilingual class. 

6 ways to encourage math talk for bilingual classes

Math Talk Tip 1: Ask the right questions

Students can’t have a rich discussion around a shallow question. So Use open-ended questions:

Instead of asking your students to simply provide the correct answer, ask open-ended questions that require them to explain their reasoning. For example, instead of asking “What is 5 + 7?”, ask “How do you know that 5 + 7 = 12?” This encourages students to think critically and share their thought process. In addition to why, other great questions are “What patterns do you see?” 

I also like to use “Where do you see_____?” For example, imagine that you’re teaching 15×37 using the standard algorithm. I might ask my class “where do you see 5×7?” They can show me the product is 35 and the 5 is with the ones and the 3 has been carried to the tens. 

“Would you rather” are my favorite prompts to use to kick off math talk. The question is built into the problem so you don’t have to think of a deep question on the spot.  I’ve written about them before on my post 3 No Prep Math Warm Ups. I have premade slides for grades 3-5 and another set for 6th grade in both English and Spanish. You can access those by clicking here or by clicking the image below.

Math Talk Tip 2: Encourage peer-to-peer discussion

Allow time for students to work in pairs or small groups to discuss the question that you asked. This allows them to share their understanding, ask questions, and build upon each other’s ideas. It also gives them a chance to practice before being called to talk in front of the class. For many students, and especially English learners, this opportunity to practice makes them feel safer.

Math talk: 6 strategies for math discourse for elementary classes

Math Talk Tip 3: Provide sentence stems

Do you often sit around the dinner table discussing mathematical concepts with your partner? Yeah, me neither. So our students don’t have a model for how those discussions should sound. This is especially true of language learners. 

By providing sentence frames, you give students the tools they need to have robust discourse around the question you presented. 

I have posters available in English, Spanish, and a bilingual version with both which provides the sentence stems that students will need to have a rich math discussion. They also come with student handouts so they can keep the stems nearby. You can access those by clicking here or by clicking the picture below.

Math Talk Tip 4: Provide opportunities for students to present their thinking

Give students the opportunity to present their solutions and reasoning to the class. This allows them to practice explaining their thinking and builds a sense of community and shared understanding. I personally like to call 2 non-volunteers and one volunteer to enforce accountability, but it’s up to you! Students will take their partner talk time more seriously if they know they may be presenting afterwards. It also shows them that presenting their thinking is something that you value since you’re using instructional minutes on it 

Math talk: Encourage math discussion. 6 strategies to try today!

Math Talk Tip 5: Use visual aids

Use visual aids such as number lines, manipulatives, and diagrams to help students understand and communicate mathematical concepts. This can make it easier for students to express their understanding and for others to understand their thinking.

One example is my bilingual fraction posters. These posters who the name of the fraction as well as an area model and a number line. They are available in English, Spanish, or a bilingual version.

Math Talk Tip 6: Create a safe and inclusive environment

Create a classroom culture where it is safe for students to share their thinking and make mistakes. Encourage students to ask questions and build upon each other’s ideas. This creates an inclusive and supportive environment for math discourse.

Math talk: 6 strategies for math discourse for elementary classes

Math Talks: Putting it all together

In conclusion, the ability to have a mathematical conversation is an essential part of our students’ mathematical development and it helps students to communicate their understanding, think critically, and build upon each other’s ideas. By choosing good questions, providing sentence stems, allowing students to practice first in small groups, and providing opportunities for students to present their thinking, we can encourage math discourse in an elementary math class.

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