A number talk is a short classroom exercise that involves discussing and brainstorming processes to solve a given math question. This strategy has primarily been used to develop mental math and number sense skills by allowing students to work out the steps needed to solve math problems for themselves, rather than having a teacher outline the procedures for them. As such, number talks may be considered a metacognition strategy, since the ultimate goal of these exercises is to help students view math as a learning process.
Recently, many educational professionals have begun to advocate for the use of number talks as the best way to teach mathematics. That said, as much as this strategy has become popular in classroom teaching, there are currently no meta studies examining the efficacy of this method or its impact size on student learning. In 2016, Angela Mader-Stewart of Lakehead University did, however, make a preliminary foray into quantifying the effects of number talks in mathematical instruction, ultimately concluding that “number talks is the very best strategy to teach both number sense and math facts at the same time” (Stewart, 115).
This study was a case study and therefore, it did not, in fact, make use of a control group nor did it compare the impact size of results to any other method of teaching math. Indeed all this paper demonstrated was that the students showed an improvement between their pre intervention assessments and their post intervention assessments for the curriculum she covered with number talks. Although these results may appear statistically relevant, the students’ math test results, axiomatically, should have improved after being taught the assessessed curriculum materials, regardless of the strategy actually used to teach them.
In 2017, Mark Duffy performed another quantitative study on a number talks intervention using secondary students. However, his study, like Mader-Stewart’s, had a small sample size and no control group (Duffy 66). The measured increases in math scores were also low, with the majority of students failing the post intervention assessment on two thirds of the sections and only 60% passing the final third section. Despite the veritable litany of voices now endorsing the methods outlined in these texts, Mark Duffy’s 2017 paper, which sought to establish a summative resource for ascertaining the efficacy of number talks, was only able to conclude that the extant data provided insufficient evidence for making such a determination. (Duffy, 73).
A 2020 randomnized control trial, conducted by P, May, examined the efficacy of number talks for grade 5 students. The results showed an effect size of .63 for application skills, an effect size of .65 for accuracy, and a negative effect size of 1.6 for speed. That being said, the author wrote the speed results were positive, but the statistical data was negative, this leads me to believe that there may have been a typo here within the paper. Ultimately, as of this moment there exists little to no experimental evidence that Number Talks is an evidence-based strategy. However, it is a research based strategy.
As previously stated, number talks are essentially a metacognition-strategy, which, according to John Hattie’s meta study on teaching factors, are high yield teaching tools that shows a mean effect size of .60. Number talks can be an effective tool for diagnosing specific inaccuracies in student understanding, promoting a growth mindset for math, and for increasing student awareness of some fundamental mathematical concepts. However, while there are benefits to the use of number talks, the practice is not without drawbacks, and, as with all educational strategies, there is an appropriate time and place for their best implementation in the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, number talks are a departure from direct instruction (another high yield strategy), and therefore they lower the amount of curriculum that can be covered in a limited timeframe. Ultimately, while it may be possible to incorporate number talks as an addendum to regular math instruction, their use should be limited to enrichment and should not supplant teaching methods, like direct instruction and individual practice time, which have been shown in meta analysis to produce the higher increases in math understanding.
Why You Should be Skeptical of Number Talks
S, Parish. (2014). Number Talks. Math Solutions.
J, Hattie. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement Visible Learning. Retrieved from <https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/>.
A, Stewarts. (2016). The Impact of Daily Number Talks on the Development of Mental Math Abilities of Second Graders within a Reform-Based Classroom. Lakehead University. Retrieved from <https://knowledgecommons.lakeheadu.ca/bitstream/handle/2453/4235/StewartA2018m-1b.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y>.
Gersten, Chard, Jayanthi, Baker, Morphy, Flojo. (2009). A Meta-analysis of Mathematics Instructional Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities: Technical Report. Instructional Research Institute. Retrieved from <http://3evoie.org/telechargementpublic/usa/gersten2009a.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0c-XjNJoSNy2dDvfWEwOqBl5EqtuFpU5GkW6s4QM7-jpuY90-I85Q5dyI>.
M, Duffy. (2017). Can Frequent Use Of Number Talks Increase The
Comprehension, Understanding, And Fluency Of Fractions, Decimals, And Percentages In Alternative High School Students? Hamline University. Retrieved from <https://digitalcommons.hamline.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5349&context=hse_all>.
May, P. L. (2020). Number Talks Benefit Fifth Graders’ Numeracy. International Journal of Instruction, 13(4), 361–374. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lakeheadu.ca/10.29333/iji.2020.13423a