Tips for Planning a Talk-Based Lesson

by Math Solutions Professional Learning Team, May 21st, 2015

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A math talk is a conversation you and your students have in class that helps them reason mathematically. It’s not just speaking about the topics, it’s delving into them and helping your students come to a better understanding. For this reason, talks are a valuable part of your lesson planning. However, because math talk requires a certain kind of conversation, you should know how to guide the chat. It all starts with your lesson plan. Here are tips for creating effective talk-based lessons:

Ask yourself some questions

When planning discussion-based math instruction, you should keep these two questions in mind:

  1. Why do we talk about our own and other’s math reasoning?
  2. How do we talk about our own and other’s math reasoning?

Keeping these questions in mind will help you focus as you plan a discussion-based lesson. You must know why math talk (and the specific topic you’re planning) matters and how to implement talks into your classroom. These questions also help you think critically as you plan.

Get to know what productive talk looks like

You won’t be able to plan a productive discussion if you don’t know the key components of effective discourse. In our book “Class Discussions in Math,” we go over each of the characteristics that define an effective conversation, including:

  • Helping students clarify and share their thoughts.
  • Helping students understand how others think.
  • Helping students reason deeply.
  • Helping students engage with their peers’ reasoning.

Understanding each of these features of a productive talk will help you find ways to guide the discussion. For instance, you might ask students to clarify their comments or have the class respond to another person’s ideas.

teacher and children working with number cubes

Introduce talk-based lessons to your class and make sure they understand why discussion is important.

Introduce the idea of math talk

At the beginning of the school year, tell your class that they’ll be talking about math. Explain that sometimes, talking about what you’re thinking of will help you understand the thought better. Basically, talking about ideas and concepts in math and the way students perceive them can help the class better grasp the lesson.

Explaining why talks are important and that you’ll be using them in class shows the students what to expect.

Support the idea

Tell your students what a math talk is and why it matters. If students see that talking in a specific way could help them perform better in class, they’re more likely to be on board. You should detail how math talk looks different than other conversations, and explain that speaking in such a way is effective.

You can even demonstrate math talk for the class and have them tell you what they observed. Did they know what you were thinking based off the way you shared ideas? Then, your students may realize that they can’t read each others’ minds and need discussion to understand the way their peers reason mathematically.

Utilize keywords

Introduce a few keywords to your class that you can use throughout the year during a discussion. These keywords will help get your class on the same page:

  • Explain: When you ask a student to explain their thinking, they should know what that means.
  • Explanation: Giving an explanation is similar to when students explain how they think. Make sure students know both uses of the word and what they should do when you ask for an explanation.
  • Reasoning: When you ask, “What’s your reasoning?” students should be able to respond with how they came to conclusions during a lesson.

Define the terms for your class, then use them whenever you have a math talk.

Go over expectations

Before you have your first discussion-based instruction, your students should know what’s expected of them during the talks. This way, they’ll be able to respond appropriately and engage in the conversation. Expectations may include being respectful to others, participating in discussions, speaking loudly so everyone can hear and responding to ideas. They’re all very simple requirements for math talk, but making sure students know their role is important.

Identify goals

“Use math goals to guide your talk-based lesson.”

Every time you plan a lesson, you should know what your goals are. From helping students understand what a fraction is to ensuring your class leaves that day knowing how to solve a certain problem, you must always state your objectives. It will become your guide when you have a conversation. The questions you ask students and the direction you take in your math talk will revolve around your daily, weekly and yearly goals.

Planning a math talk may seem like it requires many steps, but give it a try and, with practice, it will become easier and your students will enjoy the lesson. In fact, here are a few things students have to say about our book “Number Talks,” which teachers used to implement math talk:

“I like that other people have different answers [to math questions than I do].”

“When I struggle and someone gets the right answer, then I learn.”

“[Engaging in math talk] is like solving a mystery.”

For more tips and specific ideas, you can use our book “Classroom Discussions in Math: A Facilitator’s Guide to Support Professional Learning of Discourse and the Common Core, Grades K-6.”


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