Students show a deeper understanding when they are taught how to properly use math talk as they learn. It turns out that being able to explain your thinking about math improves your comprehension significantly. Students who cannot explain how they arrived at an answer or why it is reasonable are signaling that they may have memorized a procedure or even just gotten lucky.

Students have an internal understanding that facts need verbal explanations.

I used to tell my classes a story about the engineer who went to a town council meeting. The council was looking for proposals to build a new bridge for the town. This engineer comes in and shows the council a drawing and a model for his proposed bridge design. They look it over and then ask him why his design is the best. He answers, “It just is.” I would then ask my class, “Would you consider this a satisfactory answer if you were on the council?” There is always a unanimous response: “No, because he didn’t explain it.”

How can we make sure students talk about math?

In order to help support students in becoming proficient at math talk, we have to teach them how to talk about math, and then we must provide them with opportunities to talk about math regularly. Make math talk an expectation. 

Give kids math they can talk about.

All the math discussion tips in the world will not be very helpful if we don’t give students something to talk about. This means kids need rich, interesting problems to solve. Yes, they need to learn the multiplication table, and yes, they need to learn procedures for finding the lowest common denominator, but these are just “things.” They are tools for solving problems. So, very simply, math should be learned in a problem-solving context.

Kids will talk about math when they’re given a problem to solve.

For example, rather than saying, “Today we are going to learn about multiplying by fives,” put eight groups of books out on the floor to set the stage for rich learning and discussion. Make sure there are five books in each group. Then ask students to sit down in a circle around the books and ask, “How many books are there?” That’s the problem. Now ask for answers and make sure they tell you how they know, what strategy they used, if one strategy is more efficient (quick and accurate) than another. Beginning any lesson with a question or problem gives students something to talk about.

The magic way to get kids talking about every math problem is to ask them to use the word “because.”

In the beginning when students solve a problem and share an answer, you most likely will have to prompt them and ask questions like, “Why do you say that?” and “How do you know?” The magic word we are always looking to hear from students is “because.” For example, “I know there are 40 books on the floor because … ” Allow students time to think and also to use pictures, diagrams, number lines, and other materials to help demonstrate their thinking. In fact, a good way to get a student thinking is to ask very directly, “How did you solve it?” or “Can you prove with a picture, a diagram, or other materials that what you’re saying is correct?”

Try this magic math discussion tip to get students talking.

One way to get students talking about math is to ask them to imagine a new student in math class. I ask, “How would you suggest the new student approach this problem, and why?” or “Tell our new friend how you got your answer and why it is correct.” Even when you play a math game together, it is reasonable to ask, “What are strategies that worked well in this game that a new player should know?”

Pro tip: To support all learners create a math-vocabulary board or chart. Add new math terms to the chart as they come up during class. Have students define and draw illustrations to accompany each new term. This can serve as a handy reference during discussions, writing, and problem solving.

Providing opportunities and time for talking about math in class yields big dividends. You’ll be impressed at the way students are thinking and understanding math. Don’t be surprised if they’re more engaged, too.

We’d love to hear—have you found cool ways to get your students talking about math? Share your experiences in the comments and be sure to check out more ways to keep kids engaged and present in math class with Ready Classroom Mathematics.