Speaking the Language of Mathematics

Updated: May 5

Are you able to solve 26 + 27 using mental math? How about 32 x 15? When given the freedom to do so, students naturally find creative and flexible ways to manipulate numbers and find patterns in order to solve problems mentally. However, once we tell young students how to use an algorithm or formula to solve a problem, we’ve forever robbed them of the opportunity to discover for themselves. There is certainly a place and a time for standard and common ways to approach a problem, but a Number Talk is designed to provide students with the opportunity to own and understand why those standard algorithms work in the first place.


A Number Talk is a short classroom conversation around purposeful and preplanned computation problems that are solved mentally. During a Number Talk, students develop deep understanding of place value and properties of numbers by developing their own strategies, while teachers shift their role to facilitators of discussion in which they listen to student thinking, ask honest questions, learn with students, and record student strategies to make math explicit. Over 200 Madison City Pre-K-5 teachers participated in Number Talks PD last month facilitated by Dr. Sherry Parrish, author of the Number Talks series. Dr. Parrish led our teachers in discussion around why Number Talks are meaningful for students, and teachers practiced facilitating a Number Talk with each other. Teachers focused on recording student thinking in a way that emphasized the properties of numbers and operations in action. For example, students may know that you can change the order of addends without changing the sum, but when they see it explicitly recorded and applied through a strategy they came up with, the property comes to life.


A Number Talk itself is simply a purposeful classroom conversation, but the power lies in the philosophy of teaching mathematics that it emphasizes. Mathematics is about much more than a set of rules and procedures. When students are nudged to open their minds to the world of relationships and patterns that exists within mathematics, they become problem solvers. They can innovate, adapt, and design the future they see for themselves. As true problem solvers, they are unstoppable.