Episode 3 – Number Talks

In this post, we will venture into the world of number talks. We aren’t necessarily focusing on just one article or resource today but we are pulling from several places. We are going to be pulling ideas from Sherry Parrish’s book Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies and some ideas from Jo Boaler.

A Number Talk is a short, ongoing daily routine that provides students with meaningful ongoing practice with computation. A typical Number Talk takes between 5 and 15 minutes. They provide an opportunity for students make sense of their own mathematical ideas because the expectation is that they will use number relationships and the structures of numbers to add, subtract, multiply and divide.

There are many different flavors of Number Talks, but they all follow the same general format:

  • The teacher shows a problem
  • Students solve the problem in their head
  • Students use hand signals to indicate they have an answer, multiple solution methods, or that they are still thinking about the problem.
  • The teacher then calls a student who announces the answer and then explains how she arrived at that answers.
  • The teacher records (often on poster paper) the student’s explanation.
  • Students use hand signals to indicate they had the same method.
  • The teacher calls on additional students who each explain their methods.
  • The teachers records those methods on the poster as well.
  • Time permitting, three to six methods might be shared for solving the problem.

A variety of Number Talks is one that uses a sequence of problems that students solve in their heads. Each problem is revealed and solved, such that the sequence of problems strategically lead students to uncover a particular solution strategy.

Number Talks should be structured as short sessions alongside (but not necessarily directly related to) the ongoing math curriculum.

It is stressed by all three of our Number Talk authors that it is super important to make Number Talks short! They are not supposed to replace current curriculum or take up the majority of the time, but rather give a short blast of time to allow kids to practice number sense using mental strategies.

And really that is really the primary goal of Number Talks –  computational fluency. Kids develop computational fluency while thinking and reasoning like mathematicians and during a number talk, they are asked to make connections and look for relationships.  What’s even more fascinating is that kids are super engaged because they are sharing their strategies with others.

It is important for the teacher to support communication skills, by establishing a safe, supportive community where all students can share out. If students don’t feel like they can share – the Number Talk will fall short no matter how much you prepare and they won’t have the impact that research states they can.

So where does a teacher get the problems for the Number Talk? Start by considering the skills within your unit that your kids need more practice with. Then create a problem (or a string of 3 to 4 problems) and give it to your students. Don’t stress out about the need to choose the perfect problem(s). Just do it. You’ll know if you picked a good problem when the conversation is still going strong after 10 minutes.

Some examples of addition for each grade:

1st grade: 9 + 7
2nd grade: 24 + 27
3rd grade: 74 + 47
4th grade: 370 + 267
5th grade: 345 + 457

Really…choose any problem and see what your students do with it. Just keep in mind that students will be solving it mentally.

Finally, when implementing number talks you can maximize your experiences. Be mindful of all of the strategies students might use to help you decipher what students are trying to explain. You might want to start with easier problems or problems with smaller numbers so the students can understand the math before going on to larger, more complicated numbers. As students share their methods, try to connect the method with a visual representation. This makes the solution method more accessible to all students. Here are four different ways 44+35 might be recorded on the poster. Which method depends on how the student explains her method. 


There are tons of Number Talk resources out there. Find one. Read it. Then try one in your class. Just do it. You will see the benefits immediately!

Jo Boaler video on Number Talks


Making Number Talks Matter by Cathy Humpreys & Ruth Parker


Number Talks by Sherry Parrish