Using language skills to teach maths

​Derrimut Primary School classroom teacher Sally Burke explores the number talks approach to incorporating expressive and receptive language skills into her mat​hematics class.

Wh​at are number talks?

Number talks are part of the numeracy program at Derrimut Primary School where students can use and develop their receptive and expressive language skills to explain, explore and build their understanding of foundational mathematics concepts.

Derrimut Primary School classroom teacher Sally Burke explains how the approach has allowed her Foundation students to have meaningful conversations about maths while also promoting a culture of enquiry and curiosity.​

'Number talks is basically a conversation between the students, talking about mathematical concepts, number sense, and problem solving,' says Sally.

How do number talks work in the maths c​lassroom?

The program is a whole class learning approach that brings students into a collaborative environment, and allows them to reflect on their reasoning and collective understanding and ability to express and explore mathematical concepts.

'Students put forward ideas about what they know, and you'll have different students coming in at different levels.'

'But the program shows you what levels there are in your classroom for individual learning, and how to plan for those kids, to look after individual needs, and understand where they're at in their development.'

Identify what your students know and where they can develop

'I get excited about [this learning approach] because I can see what every individual student is thinking, and they're verbalising it to me then and there.'

'When it comes to me knowing my students, and for assessment and reporting, it's all there right in front of me.'

Use peer collaboration to drive their own development

'The approach supports student learning because it's a collaborative process. They're learning from each other, you can see them thinking about what someone else has said and then they'll contribute because they're bouncing off each other.'

Build their confidence in a supportive environment

'The most important thing for me at the moment is the confidence that they get from these number talks.'

'There's no fear of being wrong, because there is no wrong answer, they're all just different ways of looking at something. They take risks with their learning.

'As they get familiar with the approach you'll see students that have not said a word in the first three you've run, start to offer something, then you won't be able to stop them from putting their hand up.'

A practical approach to maths and collaborative learning: Number talks in action

Set up an open and collaborative environment

In a class, this approach involves having students participate in a focused conversation around the whiteboard or any other surface that can help them bring together and expand on the ideas that are developed throughout the conversation.

Introduce the prompt and start to gather responses

The teacher will ask students to explain their understanding of a prompt, which can be pictographic or numerical.

As answers are received from the group, their collective knowledge is continually added around the prompt to allow all students to collectively reflect and develop their understanding of the concept.

'For instance you'll put the number six on a page. You will have one student put their hand up and say, "That is the number six". So I know instantly that this student can identify and name the number six.'

Allow students to extend their own understanding

'Then you might have another student come in and say, "well that's three plus three, which equals six". So I automatically know that this student can name and identify number six, knows their doubles and knows that two small collections can make a total.'

Give everyone time to reflect on the learning that they've developed as a group

By having students develop collectively and use their language skills to explore and explain their concepts, teachers can gain valuable insights about the levels of individual students and the abilities of the class as a whole, while promoting valuable reflection time for students to expand their understanding of the given concept and the varying ways it can be represented.

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HITS in action: Collaborative learning

The number talks approach exemplified by Derrimut Primary School is an active example of the High Impact Teaching Strategy of Collaborative Learning. This strategy can be modified to support students in a whole class setting or in small cooperative learning groups to explore any number of curriculum areas.​

For more information about this strategy, see High Impact Teaching Strategies.

Part of a larger conversation on numeracy in Victorian schools

Strong literacy and numeracy outcomes for all children and young people are a key part of the Education State targets.

The Literacy and Numeracy Strategy Phase Two: Achieving Excellence Literacy and Numeracy has been released, providing resources and professional learning to improve the teaching and learning of literacy and numeracy for primary and secondary students.

For more information about literacy and numeracy in the Education State, see Literacy and numeracy strategy .