Number Talks: developing fluency, flexibility, and conceptual understanding #AuthorAndIllustrate

How might we work on fluency (accuracy, flexibility, efficiency, and understanding) as we continue to teach and learn with students? What if our young learners are supposed to be fluent with their multiplication facts, but… they. ..just…aren’t!?

It really isn’t a surprise, right? Children learn and grow at different rates. We know that because we work with young learners every day.  The question isn’t “Why aren’t they fluent right now?” It isn’t. It just isn’t. The question should be and is:

“What are we going to do, right now, to make this better
for every and each learner in our care?”

In Making Number Talks Matter, Cathy Humphreys and Ruth Parker write:

Multiplication Number Talks are brimming with potential to help students learn the properties of real numbers (although they don’t know it yet), and over time, the properties come to life in students’ own strategies. (Humphreys, 62 p.)

Humphreys and Parker continue:

Students who have experienced Number Talks come to algebra understanding the arithmetic properties because they have used them repeatedly as they reasoned with numbers in ways that made sense to them. This doesn’t happen automatically, though. As students use these properties, one of our jobs as teachers is to help students connect the strategies that make sense to them to the names of properties that are the foundation of our number system. (Humphreys, 77 p.)

So, that is what we will do. We commit to deeper and stronger mathematical understanding. And, we take action.

This week our Wednesday workshop focused on Literacy, Mathematics, and STEAM in grade level bands.  Teachers of our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders gathered to work together, as a teaching team, to take direct action to strengthen and deepen our young students’ mathematical fluency.

We began with the routine How Do You Know? routine from NCTM’s High-Yield Routines for Grades K-8 using this sentence:

81-25=14×4
How do you know?

Here’s how I anticipated the ways learners might think.

Paper.Productive Struggle.195

From The 5 Practices in Practice: Successfully Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion in your Middle School Classroom:

Anticipating students’ responses takes place before instruction, during the planning stage of your lesson. This practice involves taking a close look at the task to identify the different strategies you expect students to use and to think about how you want to respond to those strategies during instruction. Anticipating helps prepare you to recognize and make sense of students’ strategies during the lesson and to be able to respond effectively. In other words, by carefully anticipating students’ responses prior to a lesson, you will be better prepared to respond to students during instruction. (Smith, 37 p.)

How many strategies and tools do we use when modeling multiplication in our classroom? It is a matter of inclusion.

It is a matter of inclusion.

Every learner wants and needs to find their own thinking in their community. This belonging, sharing, and learning matters. We make sense of mathematics and persevere. We make sense of others thinking as they learn to construct arguments and show their thinking so that others understand.

Humphreys and Parker note:

They are learning that they have mathematical ideas worth listening to—and so do their classmates. They are learning not to give up when they can’t get an answer right away because they are realizing that speed isn’t important. They are learning about relationships between quantities and what multiplication really means. They are using the properties of the real numbers that will support their understanding of algebra. (Humphreys, 62 p.)

As teachers, we must anticipate the myriad of ways students think and learn. And, as Christine Tondevold (@BuildMathMinds) tells us:

The strategies are already in the room.

Our job is to connect mathematicians and mathematical thinking.

From NCTM’s Principles to Actions:

Effective teaching of mathematics engages students in making connections among mathematical representations to deepen understanding of mathematics concepts and procedures and as tools for problem solving.

And:

Effective teaching of mathematics builds fluency with procedures on a foundation of conceptual understanding so that students, over time, become skillful in using procedures flexibly as they solve contextual and mathematical problems.

What if we take up the challenge to author and illustrate mathematical understanding with and for our students and teammates?

Let’s work together to use and connect mathematical representations as we build procedural fluency from conceptual understanding.


Humphreys, Cathy. Making Number Talks Matter. Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Leinwand, Steve. Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014. Print.

Smith, Margaret (Peg) S.. The Five Practices in Practice [Middle School] (Corwin Mathematics Series). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

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