Kathy Richardson and Ruth Parker began giving teachers mental math exercises at professional development settings during the 1990s. As these teachers completed more mental math Kathy saw the teachers becoming more proficient. Kathy and Ruth realized that they wanted to develop students' understanding, but they did this best by using concrete models to figure out computation. This idea lead to number talks.
So...what is a number talk? A number talk is a short daily routine that gives students meaningful practice with computation. Number talks help students develop fluency while solving mental math problems. One great way to introduce a number talk is after a counting circle. In case you haven't heard of a counting circle here are some blogs to check out:
Sadie Estrella - Counting Circle
Malke Rosenfeld - First Counting Circle
John Golden - Sadie's Circles
I would love to explain in detail what exactly a number talk is but Jo Boaler does a beautiful job (way better than I ever could) in this video, it is worth the watch!
Here are my Top 5 Benefits of Number Talk:
1. Teaches Number Fluency
This is in my mind the greatest benefit of number talks. The more students are involved in number talks the deeper conceptual understanding they have about numbers. Students will begin to see different fact strategies for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division the more they practice. They will then use these known facts be able to see things like 6+7=6+6+1 or 6+7=7+7-1. Students show their fluency when they are able to explain why they are doing what they are doing, and also when they know how to solve a problem using different methods.
2. Number Talks Build Confidence in Students
Once a student has a deeper conceptual understanding of numbers and how they work they will start to solve mental math problems at a faster pace. It might not happen right away, but the more practice a student has the faster they will get during number talks. This gives our students confidence. They can feel that they are becoming more proficient. I know that this confidence will carry over into their mental attitude while solving other math problems.
3. Students Learn Different Strategies
Sometimes a student will solve a problem in a way that other students would have never thought of. By sharing these idea in the form of a number talk our students gets to collaborate and may learn a more effective way of solving mental math problems. You may hear students say things like "Oh I never thought of that!" That is one of my favorite sentences! This means that our students are recognizing that other students think differently than them and that they have valuable ideas to share as well. Even the teachers have valuable things to learn from their students.
4. How to Make a Problem Easier to Solve
Which is the easiest to solve?
Chances are that students would struggle more when presented with 13-7 versus 10-4 or 12-6, but the awesome part is they all equal 6! During number talks students begin to see that they can change the problem they are working on to make it easier on themselves. If a student gets uncomfortable solving a certain problem they can change that problem into something easier using their fact strategies! One student might struggle trying to solve 46-29 mentally, but once they see that 46-29=50-33 they might have an easier time solving this problem mentally. Its important for students to be able to make mental math easier for themselves.
5. Teaches Students Communication
How do we expect our students to be able to communicate about mathematics if they never practice? At first students will struggle trying to explain their thinking during a number talk but the more practice they get the more articulate they are and the more thorough they are in their explanations. One of the 8 Mathematical Practices of the Common Core is for students to be able to "Construct Viable Arguments and Critique the Reasoning of Others". This means that students need to be able to communicate about math, using mathematical language. Number talks are a great way to get our students on the track of mathematical communication, which leads to deeper conceptual understand and fluency, look at that its like a cycle!
Last semester I wrote an article about math anxiety and counting circles. I talked about how nervous I felt during counting circles and how I basically dreaded doing them in class. I can honestly say now that I enjoy counting circles. I enjoy them because of how much the number talks have helped me. Over the last two semesters I have deeper understanding of numbers and better number fluency. Counting circles no longer make me so anxious because I have different strategies to solve mental math problems. I will 100% do regular number talks in my future classroom because they will do nothing but help my students in the long run and make them better mathematicians.