Reinforcing Concepts and Skills in the Early Grades with Math Talk

By Char Forsten

Solving math word problems requires a complex set of skills. Students must be able to read, understand, strategize, compute, and analyze. It’s no surprise that many students struggle with word problems, get frustrated, and ultimately give up.

Teachers can overcome this problem with math talk, an oral language approach that makes the language of math visible. In this article, we’ll examine math talk and how teachers can use it in the early grades to develop understanding in young learners.

Teaching through stories and illustrations

Math talk is an instructional conversation led by the teacher with a goal of helping everyone learn, practice, and master early math concepts in a language-based setting. Individually or in groups, children are encouraged to solve problems, explains their thinking, answer questions, and justify what they do. Math talks can be used to introduce, review, practice, and reinforce math concepts. They also are an engaging way to explore math connections and relationships.

The idea of math talks originated in Singapore. Beginning in kindergarten, young learners learn math in English. Much of their instruction begins with a visual, language-based approach. If you were to look inside their books you’d find illustrations of fairy tales and nursery rhymes and look-and-talk activities.

In the early grades, fairy talks and nursery rhymes are a big part of a child’s life in America, as well. So it makes sense to use these to initiate these discussions to show that math is everywhere—in the everyday world and in these beloved stories.

The teacher as guide

The teacher is critical to this strategy. To start, teachers simply choose an illustration, magazine cover, photograph—the sources are endless. Then, they invite children to study the picture and talk about the details they find—how many cows, plates, rabbits, etc. Questioning is also essential. Teachers steer and guide the children by asking questions that lead children through experiences with cardinality, measurement, and other concepts. Which is bigger or smaller? How many ___ do you see? Can you count them?

As little ones touch and count, point and count, or subitize, teachers can observe and conduct formative assessments. Through repeated practice, children learn and internalize math, and build strong number sense while focusing on meaning rather than formulas and memorization.

The power of daily math talk

Math talk is not an add-on. It should be integrated into every day, classroom activities. Teachers should always initiate a math talk when reading a story. They will see a huge difference in math performance. It’s also a good tool for strengthening the home-school connection. Children can take their pictures home and math talk with parents and siblings. By starting habits early, they eventually will become practices.

A skilled teacher can develop deep understanding while helping children progress from open stories, to number sense stories, to their own stories—and ultimately to model drawing which involves use of oral language and pictures. In this way, teachers will lead their children’s math journeys with the confidence of knowing they are becoming strong problem solvers.

For more practical ideas and tips for using math talk in your classroom, check out SDE’s webinar Making Language Visible in the Math Classroom: Using Singapore Math Strategies for Common Core Success (Grades K–2) by author and Singapore Math expert Char Forsten.

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