4 Strategies to Get Students Talking in Math Class

November 29, 2023

As educators, you probably hear a lot about academic discourse and how important it is for students to be talking during lessons. But, a lot of the tips and tricks you hear for sparking conversation are for ELA classrooms. Fishtank is here to help you make academic discourse make sense for your math classroom. We’ll share 4 strategies to get your students thinking deeply and communicating clearly.


What Does a Math Classroom Look and Sound Like?

When you picture a classroom that’s alive with learning, what do you hear and what do you see? You would hear plenty of student voices—students asking questions, taking academic risks, reflecting on mistakes to deepen their understanding—and you would see students working together to push one another’s thinking. Not only is this a classroom where students are actively engaged and learning, but it is a classroom that makes students feel comfortable and confident throughout the learning process.


How Do I Get Students Talking in Math Class?

At Fishtank Learning, we believe that 4 simple strategies can help you elevate every student’s voice in the math classroom–and our Fishtank Math lessons are designed to help you make it happen.

1. Ask the Right Questions

One of the most important things to consider when trying to spark conversation in the classroom is the question you’re asking students. If you are asking students to simply give you the answer, there isn’t much conversation that can happen: The one student you call on is either correct or not. Instead, open-ended questions about how students solved, why they chose a certain strategy, and how they know their answer is correct allow for deeper conversations. 

By asking students to explain their process, you not only gain valuable insight about what your students' strengths and areas for growth are, but you ensure that they truly understand what they are doing as they approach a problem. Furthermore, by asking students these open-ended questions, you can engage more voices as students build upon one another’s explanations and ask follow-up questions. 

Within Fishtank Math lessons, we provide these conversation-sparking questions in the form of Guiding Questions listed under each Anchor Problem. These questions are meant to be the jumping off point for students to analyze the problem, synthesize their ideas, and clearly communicate their thinking.

5th Grade Unit 2, Lesson 1: Anchor Task and Guiding Questions

Anchor Task with Guiding Questions


2. Celebrate the Process of Learning

This second strategy heavily builds upon the first: As you ask students questions and prompt them to deepen their thinking, actively acknowledge and celebrate the process of learning. In practice, this might mean that you thank a student for sharing an incorrect response because of the importance of analyzing the error, or that you give students a chance to revise their initial responses throughout the discussion as they learn new information from their peers. 

Celebrating the process of learning is especially important when asking students to build on or respectfully critique the thinking of their peers. You want to ensure students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts even when they aren’t absolutely certain of their answer and explicitly narrating the importance of sharing mistakes can help. 

Beyond welcoming mistakes, celebrating the process of learning is also about pushing students to consider more than just the final answer to a problem. The solving process–the repeatable steps and analytical skills–is what students should take away from a lesson so that they are able to solve increasingly complex problems over time. Both the questions you ask and how you respond to students can help you celebrate the process of learning. 

3. Use Discussion Protocols

Consider how students use their voices in your classroom now: Do you usually call on one or two students to share their thoughts after completing independent work? How many of your students have the chance to speak during a typical lesson? Discussion protocols can help you ensure every student is actively engaging in conversation during class. 

The Turn and Talk is a discussion protocol you can quickly and easily use throughout lessons to provide space for student voices. While there are many versions of the Turn and Talk, the basic structure is to ask students an open-ended question and then give them a set amount of time to discuss their responses with a partner. 

Not only can Turn and Talks ensure every student has a chance to speak during class, but they allow you the opportunity to circulate the room and check-in with students. Based on what you hear, you can select specific students to share their thoughts or reteach a specific concept if it seems like students need more time with it. 

4. Support Students

Because many students struggle with anxiety about speaking in class or anxiety about math class specifically, it’s important to provide support for all students as they engage in academic discourse. Discussion protocols can help ease students’ anxiety about speaking in class as they are only talking to one other person rather than the entire class. Furthermore, as students engage in partner or small group conversations, they gain confidence about what they are saying, preparing them to ultimately speak in front of the whole class. 

Beyond discussion protocols, there are many other ways to support students with academic conversations. You can provide sentence starters to students to help them enter the conversation and build upon their peers’ thinking. You can also leverage Anchor Charts or a Word Wall in the classroom to help give students the specific vocabulary they need to explain their thinking clearly. 

You can also think about what your classroom culture around conversations looks and feels like for students. If students are scared to speak up or worried about what their peers might think of them for asking questions, you may want to take the time to speak openly with your students about the importance of taking academic risks and making mistakes. This can be the starting point from which your students learn to value classroom conversations. 


Ready to level-up the conversations in your math classroom? Create your free Fishtank Learning account today to access engaging, rigorous lessons that get students talking. Upgrade to Fishtank Plus to unlock even more resources and Teacher Tools to help you make the most of your classroom instruction.

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