Encouraging Math Talk in the Preschool and Kindergarten Classroom

by Treve Brinkman, Director of Professional Learning
January 17th, 2020

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Why is it that engaging preschool and kindergarten students in talking about their mathematical ideas is considered such an important key to fostering the development of early math skills? What is gained by devoting valuable time and effort into classroom discussions about math, and how can teachers set the stage for lively and meaningful math talk? Even more importantly, how do we ensure that these classroom discussions are helpful and productive?

In Talk Moves: A Teacher’s Guide for Using Classroom Discussions in Math, authors Suzanne H. Chapin, Catherine O’Connor, and Nancy Canavan Anderson remind us that we have come a long way since math class was typically a quiet place in which the teacher demonstrated at the blackboard and then asked questions, and students raised their hands and gave the answer to a problem. It is now widely accepted that math talk is not only beneficial, but is perhaps the most natural and revealing way to gain insight into what younger learners understand and how they reason.

To clarify why, at even the earliest stages of classroom instruction, math talk is now deemed to be an indispensable tool, the authors list these reasons:


  1. Talk can reveal understanding and misunderstanding.
  2. Talk supports robust learning by boosting memory.
  3. Talk supports deeper reasoning.
  4. Talk supports language development.
  5. Talk supports development of social skills.


Strategies to encourage young students to share their ideas are limited only by a teacher’s imagination, and experienced educators have found some sure-fire methods. In Teaching Preschool and Kindergarten Math, authors Ann Carlyle and Brenda Mercado share with us the following five suggestions:


Create a stimulating environment through objects and tools

To sum up this first suggestion, a classroom environment that is conducive to active learning will include a rich variety of appropriate stimuli and meaningful, useful materials, which students use to create, explore, and express ideas, through a variety of modalities. It will be set up to support math-friendly activities like counting, sorting, and categorizing objects, as well as to nurture social interaction and math talk.


Create a safe environment through routines

A safe environment means that a child who may feel less than confident will be more willing to share his thoughts, because there is no right or wrong answer. It means that our reasoning is our own, and it’s OK if it differs from our neighbor’s thought process. It means that we can learn from each other and that everyone has something valuable to contribute, even if that something happens to be a bit of constructive struggle. When a teacher models this attitude, it becomes contagious. When routines are built in to the rhythm of the classroom, they serve to make learning activities predictable and therefore comfortable. Counting activities, for example, those pertaining to real-life circumstances such as “How many students are in class today?”, can be used to emphasize math concepts in a repetitive, yet varying routine.


Ask Questions

Questions teachers ask can and should be designed to draw students into a discussion rather than result in a single-word response. Non-confrontational, open-ended questions, of the “how” and “why” variety, which call for an opinion or an explanation, are far more likely to put a shy communicator at ease than a direct question thought to have one “correct” answer. Keeping in mind the goal of drawing out conversation, as opposed to eliciting a desired outcome, is an ever-present challenge, but one worth mastering.

A related technique of expanding upon what a child says not only acknowledges that he was heard, but reinforces and adds to the meaning behind his statement. For example, if a child asks for more juice by holding up his cup and saying, “More”, the teacher might expand on that language with, “More? I’ll pour more juice in your cup”.

Commenting and using parallel talk to describe or narrate your own or your students’ actions in simple, declarative sentences are additional proven strategies for modelling language and encouraging math talk in a non-threatening way.


Make play situations learning activities

Imaginative play offers myriad opportunities for young learners to be exposed to and incorporate new math concepts. In the same way that real-life situations can give children practical reasons to stretch their thinking, so can playtime. Playing grocery store, with the premise of needing to buy 6 eggs and 8 lemons to make lemon bars, for example, will call for accurate counting, and suggests to the child the ways in which math skills come in handy.


Know the mathematical content

Robust content knowledge must always be a teacher’s wellspring from which to draw. Only with a solid understanding of developmental milestones as well as deep content knowledge in math can teachers be expected to confidently assess, plan, and instruct effectively and with purpose.


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