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Math Talk Sparks Success: Middle School Learning in Focus

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Whether you are a well-versed teacher or just starting out, you know that middle schoolers love to talk—a lot. Like L O V E to talk! Talking is tricky because while you want them to listen and participate during teaching time you also want them involved. I learned a long time ago about the power of using those things that interest my students in the classroom. And if talking is the goal then I want to use it to make our math class better. I plan my lessons with the goal of allowing my middle schoolers to socialize and talk…about math. Math Talk to the rescue!

But math talks are about so much more than curbing the chattiness in class. Math talks are a powerful teaching tool that helps take our students deeper in their mathematical thinking. Math talk is more than just talking about the answer to a homework problem. Let’s see just how powerful math talks can be.

Understanding Math Talk

Math talk isn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill teaching method. Nope, it’s like a secret doorway to a new level of learning. Here’s the deal: math talk is about getting your students to share what they’re thinking about math.

Imagine a classroom where everyone’s actively participating. Where one student shares the answer to a problem and explains how they solved it. This is followed up with “I agree, but I solved the problem with a different strategy. This conversation includes statements like “I disagree because. . .” and “I solved by. . .”

This is a far different math class than the one where a student raises their hand and says “x=7” and then everyone moves on to the next problem.

With math talk, students are sharing and learning from one another. They are guiding each other through a deeper understanding of math. It turns learning into a group adventure where they are not just a passenger. They’re driving the ship and taking ownership of their learning!

The Importance of Math Talk

Math talks are a brain workout for your learners. When students get into math talk mode, their brain thinks hard and in different ways. They are no longer just sharing an answer, they have to go deeper. They share their thinking, why they chose a strategy, or what questions they had about a problem. Students get to figure things out, ask questions, and explore ideas with their classmates. Their brains go on a ride full of twists and turns that help them see things from all angles. And that is the road of learning that leads to mastery.

Asking questions and exploring ideas are the key concepts of math talk and will be a major benefit for your students.

But that’s not all – math talk is the secret recipe for becoming a pro communicator. We can all think of a kiddo who sometimes has this fantastic idea in their head but is unsure how to put it into words. Math talk fixes that. Using prompts, your students learn how to explain their thoughts clearly, listen to others, and even debate (in a friendly way, of course). Those are skills that they’ll use everywhere, not just in math class.

Now, remember how sometimes math can feel like staring at a wall of weird symbols and numbers? Well, math talk demolishes that wall. Instead of the focus being on the formula, the formula becomes a tool – part of the math strategy or thinking. Students dive into thinking about math in a different way. One where understanding the concept at its roots is the priority. When this happens we get a glimpse into how their math brains work.

I’ve seen students explain their thinking and strategy in a way that I never could. Students giving “aha” moments to other students. Students showing that they truly understand the math concept, not just the ability to get a correct answer.

Benefits of Math Talk in Middle School

Using math talk in middle school classrooms packs some amazing perks. First up, it’s a training ground for listening. You know how you’ve got those students with cool ideas? Math talk teaches the class to be all ears and respect their thoughts. It’s another form of teamwork!

Math talk has so many benefits including creative thinking, critical thinking, and teamwork just to name a few.

Speaking of teamwork, math talk turns your class into a real squad. No more thinking of math as a one-person show. It’s all about joining forces, sharing ideas, and realizing that math is way more fun when we tackle it together.

Math talk isn’t just about numbers – it’s a treasure chest of life skills. When your class dives into these math discussions, they’re becoming pro-problem-solvers. They’re thinking on their feet, looking at concepts from all angles, and coming up with clever solutions.

Math talks also help students develop flexible thinking skills. As with most things in life, in math, there is often more than one way to get to the right answer. Math talk is a tool that allows students to share their strategies and thinking. And sometimes, it is a different way of thinking that opens the mental blocks of other students.

The Role of Sentence Starters

Math talk starts with sentence starters. They are like the “secret sauce” that makes math talks so effective and accessible by all students.

From sentence starters to math wheels, using math talk in your classroom makes your math lessons more exciting and engaging for your students.

Let’s place ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re in class and itching to jump into a math discussion but don’t have much confidence in your math ability. Instead of sitting quietly and not participating, math talk sentence starters help you. They give you a roadmap to kick off your thoughts. So, instead of going, “Uhh, I think, maybe the answer is…” you can confidently say, “I think the answer might be… because…” or “I solved by…” It’s like having a short script for great conversations.

These sentence starters give students a framework for sharing their thoughts and reasoning. They are like a roadmap that helps students know where to go as they talk math.

And guess what? That makes your students and their ideas stand tall and strong, like a champion of math discussions.

These little prompts are courage boosters for students who are unsure about participating in discussions. They make it easier to dive in and share ideas without those jitters. It’s having a friendly push to be more confident. So, start math talk in your classroom by teaching kids about the power of sentence starters.

Math Talk Notes Doodle Wheel

Want to know how I introduce math talk, its importance, and its benefits to my students? I use the Math Talk Doodle Wheel! Before we ever jump into using math talk in the classroom I take the time to teach my students about math talk. And. . . I equip them with those very important sentence starters that they will need.

Picture this: You’ve got this awesome wheel full of math talk prompts for your students to use to engage in class discussions. They can stash it in their notebook and use it all year. The wheel is split into different sections that are like magic keys to fantastic math talk:

  1. If you’re nodding along with someone’s idea, you’ve got “I agree because…”
  2. If you’ve got a different take, there’s “I disagree because…”
  3. When you’re showing off your problem-solving skills, it’s “I solved by…”
  4. Feeling like you’re missing a puzzle piece? Say, “To solve, I need to know…”
  5. When explaining how you got an answer, say, “Answer is correct because…”
  6. When you’ve got your own strategy, go with “I chose this strategy because…”

In each section, students can add related sentence starters to help find just what they need to explain their thoughts.

Introducing Math Talk to Students

Start with Simple Practice

I love to jump in and practice math talk as we fill in the wheel. Using some extremely easy problems like 2+2=4 or 2+2=5 students can practice finding the sentence starter and explaining their thinking. While this may seem silly to them, it gets them using the sentence starters. Why? Because there is not risk. The students all know that 2+2=4 and that 2+2 does not equal 5. So we start by taking the new and unknown math out of the process.

This allows my students to really focus on the sentence stems and how to take the math knowledge they already have and put it into words.

Another fun way to get students to practice thinking and explaining their thinking is with “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” pictures. I love these pictures because there really is no wrong answer! Students get to use their analytical thinking and math knowledge to explain which picture they feel doesn’t belong. And they are right – and so is their neighbor with a different answer.

The goal of using these pictures with math talk is to get students comfortable with explaining their thinking. And. . . these pictures also lay a foundation for them understanding that there is more than one way of thinking.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Take a look at these examples (from wodb.ca) and ask yourself “Which one doesn’t belong?”:

Use math talk with these puzzles to help students get familier with explaining their thinking

Begin Using Them Everyday

Once students have had some chance to practice using these math sentence starters, then we begin using them with our daily math lessons.

At first, I have students take out their math wheel. We do a quick reminder of the sentence stems and how to choose one. And occasionally, I will even help guide students to a sentence starter when they forget. I also love having these math talk sentence stems posted in the classroom.

Use sentence starters to help get your kids communicating when using math talk in your classroom this year.

After introducing math talk, stick with it. At first, it might feel hard, disjointed or even a little frustrating. But don’t stop – push through. Remember that you are likely teaching a new skill to your students. It is going to take some practice for students to learn how to stop giving an answer and start explaining their answer.

It doesn’t take long for math talk and these sentence starters to become the norm in the math classroom.

Save for Later!

Remember to save this post to your favorite math Pinterest board to return to when you need help enhancing your classroom discussions with math talk!

Ellie

Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!

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