What Does Academically Productive Talk Look Like?

by Math Solutions Professional Learning Team, September 12th, 2017

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Math talk is basically the practice of having a conversation in class that promotes deeper learning and helps students come to conclusions about the topic. Through discussion, students can rationalize their thoughts, share why they used certain strategies and learn from their peers. For this reason, incorporating math talk into your lessons is very valuable. However, for math talk to be effective, you have to structure your discussion carefully and deliberately.

What exactly does a productive math talk look like and how can you implement it into your classroom? Here are the characteristics that define an academically rewarding exchange:

The talk helps students clarify and share thoughts

Academically productive math conversations help students better understand how they think. By voicing their problem-solving process, students give shape to their ideas and are able to share them with the class. As the teacher, you can facilitate that process by asking students questions to guide their talk.

For starters, restate what the student just said, using phrasing like “So what you’re saying is … ? Is that right?” This re-voicing strategy gives students the chance to correct you or see if they accurately communicated their own thoughts. What’s more, it clarifies their comment for the whole class.

young math students in a classroom facing a chalkboard and a teacher

Productive math talks involve having students clarify what they think.

The talk helps students orient to how other students think

To really get deep into math conversation, students have to grasp what their peers say. If a student is lost because he or she didn’t understand a certain point someone made, he or she will have a difficult time participating in the discussion.

The talk helps students deepen reasoning

“Have students summarize each other’s ideas.”

Get students on the same page by having them summarize one another – this is especially helpful if a student made a good point the whole class should hear. If another student can summarize what his or her peer said, you  know that student understands.

Academically productive talk helps students better understand the topic and improve their math reasoning skills. To do this, they must dig deeper into math reasoning and converse. You might press a student with questions like “Why do you think that is?” Once you’ve gone into detail over the topic, have others repeat the idea again. If you went over something complex, students may not have absorbed key details, and repetition can help.

The talk helps students engage with peers’ reasoning

The students in your class will come up with a variety of ideas and math reasoning tactics. Your conversations should help students understand what their peers are saying and see how different individuals approach math problems in unique ways. It could open your students’ eyes to new ways of reasoning.

Once a student has explained his or her idea, you can turn the discussion over to the class. Ask, “Do you agree or disagree, and why?” This way, students can share their opinions and see how their ideas compare to those of others. Additionally, ask if students have more they want to add. Perhaps one student’s analysis was accurate, but missing a piece of information. By allowing the class to share and discuss, you can facilitate complete understanding.

Use these features of a productive math talk in order. Start with sharing and clarifying, then move to engaging the rest of the class. Additionally, explore an idea in depth and get students to discuss their varying opinions. Once you’ve gone through all the steps, summarize the conversation. This will support student success with the intended mathematical goals of your lesson.

For specific ways to use these steps in your classroom, check out our series on discussions. “Classroom Discussions in Math: A Facilitator’s Guide” helps administrators, teacher leaders and/or professional learning communities work together to use math talk. “Classroom Discussions in Math: A Teacher’s Guide” is a resource for teachers.


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