Monthly Archives: May 2017

Number Talks & Operation Maths

“The practice of number talks is one of the most powerful vehicles I know for helping students learn to reason with numbers and make mathematically convincing arguments, for building a solid foundation for algebraic reasoning, and for teaching mathematics as a sensemaking process. If all teachers make this shift in their practice, it would represent a profound advancement in mathematics education.”
Ruth Parker, co-author of  Making Number Talks Matter

As mentioned in a previous post, one of the mathematical pedagogies currently generating significant excitement is that of number talks. The buzz in maths education circles is all about developing number sense and number talks is being seen as one of the most powerful ways to enable this.

Here in Ireland, although the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) has advocated the use of number talks in the PDST Mental Maths workshops and supporting manuals, and the more recent PDST Number Sense workshops, number talks is still relatively unknown. Similarly, there is very little in most of the maths text books available here, which explicitly promotes the development of specific mental maths strategies.

Not so Operation Maths. The promotion of the development of number sense is a key principle of the Operation Maths programme, as is the explicit exposure to a wide range of mental calculation strategies, most of which are also specified in the number talks approaches.

In this post, the connections between both number talks and Operations Maths will be shown, while also outlining how Operation Maths is the best programme to support the introduction and use of number talks in Irish classrooms. To read more about number talks generally, and access a whole suite of supporting resources  for all classes across the school,  please click here. To find out more about how Operation Maths works so well with number talks, please read on.

What does a Number Talk look like?

One of the definitive number talks texts is Sherry Parrish’s book Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Grades K-5. In this book, she recommends the following structure:

Number Talks Approach

Operation Maths & Number Talks

1. The teacher presents a number sentence to the class; the students are given thinking time to mentally solve it. The horizontal number sentences in Operation Maths can in themselves inspire or be used as the basis for a number talk. For example, similar number sentences to the ones shown below this table were used to encourage the children to use compensation to solve calculations.
2. The students start with one fist to their chest;  they make a “thumbs-up” on their chest to show that they have found an answer. They then use the remaining time to try to think of another way/strategy which they then indicate by putting up a thumb and a finger, and so on. While I initially used this “fist and thumbs-up” system when collecting answers, after multiple times hearing “I had the same answer as Jack/Jill”, I returned to my preferred tool of using the Operation Maths mini-whiteboards, (to maximise on participation and honesty regarding answers).  It is important to insist that the MWBs are not to be used at all for working out, all of which is to happen in the heads, rather they should only be used to record the answer(s).
3. The teacher asks a number of children to volunteer their answers and all given answers are recorded on the board.
4. The teacher asks a child to “defend their answer”/”explain their strategy”. For the children to explain clearly, they need to have the correct mathematical language so that all listeners can follow their thinking. Thus, children who have been using the Operation Maths programme are typically better able to express their thinking using the correct mathematical language and terminology that is being emphasised throughout these books.
5. All strategies are recorded on board by teacher, using visuals where possible to make the strategy less abstract for the other listeners. Many of the visual strategies that are specifically recommended to be used are ones that already used extensively throughout Operation Maths eg frames, empty number lines, bar models (referred to as part/whole models), arrays and  area models. Branching is another visual way to demonstrate strategies particularly when partitioning (breaking into place value parts) /or compensation is involved.
6. The children agree on the “real” answer. Depending on the range of possible answers given, the children can also be asked to identify any unreasonable answer from those suggested and explain why they think so. This in turn encourages them to apply the variety of estimation strategies taught in the Operation Maths programme

These actual number sentences or similar ones could be used as the basis for a number talks session (from Operation Maths 1)

Other ways in which Operation Maths and Number Talks work so well together:

  • In the junior end of the school, number talks is very much about the children developing their ability to conceptually subitise  (i.e. to recognise that there is 8 counters because there is a group of  5 and a group of 3) using a variety of images, including five and ten frames. Operation Maths also recognises the value of using frames throughout the programme in Junior Infants to Second class and provides these frames as part of the pupils’ book packs in these classes, as well as having digital eManipulatives  (i.e. the Sorting eManipulative) to support their use.
  • In Sherry Parrish’s book Number Talks: Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies, Grades K-5, she lists a whole range of specific strategies for the four operations, almost all of which are also explicitly taught or emphasized in the Operation Maths programme, including the strategy of compensation. To see an overview of the number talks strategies and where they overlap with Operation Maths click this link: Strategies in Number Talks & Operation Maths
  • For those teachers using Operation Maths, they are already familiar with the structure of having an oral and mental starter at the beginning of each maths lesson. Number talks can be used interchangeable with the starters in the Operation Maths starters bank so as to add further variety to lessons.
  • The strong emphasis on talk and discussion ( eg Talk Time in the pupils books, discussion and questions given in the TRBs) in Operation Maths further supports number talks as it prepares the children for situations in which they will be asked to explain their reasoning.

So there you have it, Number Talks & Operation Maths: a perfect partnership for each other!

Are you compensating?!

A key recurrent theme in Operation Maths is the teaching of specific strategies to promote the development of flexible and fluent mathematical learners. In a similar way to the Building Bridges approach to reading, which advocates explicitly teaching specific reading comprehension skills, Operation Maths explicitly explores a range of specific strategies in a spiral and progressive way, in order to equip the children with the necessary skills for them to become capable and confident at problem-solving and computing mentally. Particular to mental computation, Operation Maths introduces the children to a range of of mental calculation skills, one of which is compensation.




Compensation is primarily an addition strategy where the aim is to to adjust one addend to become an easier number to add with.  This involves moving the quantity required to do this  from one addend to the other. In Operation Maths, these easier numbers are usually referred to as  friendly or compatible numbers and can include doubles, multiples of ten (10, 20, 30…) or, in the older classes, multiples of the powers of ten (100, 200, 300…..; 4,000,  5,000,  6,000 etc).



As with all new concepts and strategies, Operation Maths advocates a CPA approach. An ideal introduction to compensation is with the Operation Maths frames in first class when the children first begin to notice how adding onto 9 can be made easier by moving a counter from the other quantity to the 9 to make it become a ten. When ready, the children can also begin to explore how they can also make tens when adding to 8 and 7 by moving 2 and 3 counters respectively.

This can progress to using cubes  for bigger numbers; again, this should start with addends ending in 9 eg 19, 29, 39 etc. Encourage the children to see ways to make the calculations become easier, and encourage them to use the language of moving (not adding or subtracting) a cube from one number to the other, to make a friendly number. When ready, they should then develop this strategy to use with addends ending in 8 and 7, by moving 2 and 3 from the other number. In this way, the children can also begin to start doing addition with renaming, without having to grapple with the traditional written algorithm ( or column method).


With first and second classes, it can be helpful also to show what is happening to the actual numbers in the calculation by using an arrow to highlight the quantity moving from one addend to the other. Notice how the calculation is being presented horizontally; this encourages children to consider the whole number and how it relates to the other number in the calculation. It also encourages the child to consider alternatives to the written column method, on which many children can be over-reliant.

In the senior end books for Operation Maths, branching (see red figures below) is used  to show the process of compensation and this can be particularly useful when the numbers involved are bigger than what might practically be shown using concrete materials. Never-the-less, it is always recommended to return to examples that can be demonstrated concretely, if the child finds the intermediary branching stage difficult to understand.


The ultimate aim is, that when presented with a random calculation, that the children will recognize and use compensation if it is an appropriate and efficient strategy. The suitability of compensation as an efficient strategy will depend on the numbers involved, which in turn requires flexibility on the child’s part. In most cases, this will only be likely, if they have previously encountered compensation, and a variety of other mental computation strategies, in structured  and meaningful lessons, like those provided by Operation Maths.


Further reading:


Fostering the development of correct mathematical language and terminology

Last Friday, I was working with a group of first class children who were completing some first grade activities on Splash Math, an American maths site. While, on the plus side, the activities on this site are very visual and promote a CPA approach to mathematical instruction, on the down side, the first grade in the US isn’t aligned exactly to the maths curriculum for first class in Ireland, and so we have regularly encountered activities that might have unfamiliar language and terminology.

This was one of those days. We were looking at 2D shapes in the geometry section when a child said quizzically to me, “I’m stuck, miss”. The question was “How many vertices has the shape (a circle): 1, 3, 0, 2?”. I asked the class could anybody remember, from the previous day, what vertices meant? A flurry of hands went up to tell me “corners” at which point the child had no difficulty identifying 0 as the correct answer. Then I asked the children to remind me of all the other American words to do with geometry that we had come across the previous day, which I then recorded on the board for the benefit of all the children (see image below).

It brought home to me how correct mathematical language and terminology is much more prevalent in the primary maths curricula and texts of other countries, and how it is often even introduced much earlier, when compared to Ireland. And, how much of a disservice we do to children in Ireland if we try to shield them from this language in primary school, only to have it all thrust at them in secondary, where some children might wonder if it is the same subject they are doing at all!

It also reminded me of an RSE inservice I attended years ago, which stressed the importance of the children being introduced to the correct terminology for the body parts, so they might be able to properly communicate and report any incidences that might occur. In a similar way, should we not introduce children to the correct mathematical terminology, so as to enable them to communicate their thinking more clearly and to explain the approaches they took and the strategies they used?

That is why Operation Maths has been written as a programme which does not shy away from the correct mathematical language and terminology, rather it specifically uses words like commutative, distributive, associative, dividend, product etc when explaining concepts. Furthermore, when introducing new terminology it is done via concrete and pictorial activities with the back-up of  a range of images that enable the children to not just know the word, but to be able to picture it also, and in that way to truly understand the concept it describes.

As can be seen from the example above, new terminology and language is typically introduced as part of the teaching panels (yellow-coloured sections) and is often in a blue bold font to highlight it as being new/significant. The new term is then explained in simpler words and using visual examples to reinforce its meaning for the children. Since it is envisaged that these teaching panels would be presented/mediated by the teacher, this ensures that the teacher can help explain the vocabulary and that the child is not meeting the new term  in a random section of text.

The questions/exercises for the children that follow these teaching panels have also been specifically chosen to help reinforce the new term and consolidate the concept that it entails. These typically incorporate the use of concrete materials or pictorials representations (as in the case of the 100 dots grid/sheet mentioned above) for further exploration and reinforcement.

With all new terminology, when met again, there is typically some supporting text to remind the child and/or revise the meaning. Furthermore, the child can always consult the colourful glossary at the back of his/her pupil’s book if necessary.

Some of the advantages of using correct mathematical terminology in primary mathematics:

Preparation for second level: The NCCA has published a number of Bridging materials for maths, which encourage continuity between mathematics in primary and post-primary schools. Included in these materials, there is a glossary of terminology that teachers of 5th and 6th classes are encouraged to incorporate, where possible, so that children will be better prepared for second level maths, thus easing the transition from primary. This terminology was deliberately included in the Operation Maths books for 5th and 6th. Furthermore, where useful, some terminology was also incorporated in a simpler way in the Operation Maths books for 3rd and 4th so as to make the introduction more gradual.

Number Sense & Number Talks: The buzz in maths education circles is all about developing number sense. One approach that is being encouraged to support this is to have regular Number Talks to encourage the children to communicate how they mentally solved a calculation and to explore and discuss the various strategies that could  be used. The promotion of the development of number sense is a key principle of the Operation Maths programme, from the use of frames in the junior classes, right up to the use of thinking strategies, bar models and other pictorial structures in the senior classes. Similarly, the strong emphasis on talk and discussion ( eg Talk Time in the pupils books, discussion and questions given in the TRBs) in Operation Maths further supports this process. Ultimately however, this is all dependent on the children having a well developed range of mathematical terminology, by which they can clearly communicate and express their ideas and approaches.

Maths on the internet: Most of the maths we access on the net is american-based, be it You Tube videos, teaching sites, games, drill and practice sites. In the case of the latter, in many schools and homes, the children are encouraged to access teaching, drill and practice sites such as Khan Academy, Manga High, Splash Math, etc to complement their core mathematical texts. As a result, Irish children will likely encounter, initially, terminology that is unfamiliar.  However, if they have encountered this terminology in their Operation Maths books, this will better prepare them for these sites. Indeed for those children and classes who have regularly accessed these non-Irish sites, they will probably have developed an understanding of this terminology already and its inclusion in Operation Maths will be unlikely to faze them at all.


Some FAQs:

Is this mathematical terminology in-line with the Irish Primary Mathematics Curriculum?

This is taken direct from the curriculum:
Third Class > Number > Operations >
The child should be enabled to explore, understand and apply the zero, commutative and distributive properties of multiplication.

Thus, not only is the terminology in-line with the curriculum, it raises the question how a child could previously have been enabled to “apply the commutative property” without being able to explain what he/she was doing and why, and furthermore how he/she could explain this without using the word “commutative” or “turn-around fact”?

Is is worth noting that the Teacher Guidelines, that accompanies the mathematics curriculum here in Ireland, includes a limited list of symbols, numerals, fractions and certain terminology for each class level (p. 70). However, other more generic terminology (eg product, factor, dividend etc) has not been categorised according to class levels, which contrasts with the curricula of other countries where specific terminology is typically specified for each year level/grade. Therefore, in writing Operation Maths, the authors categorised terminology into certain class levels based on evidence and practice in other countries.

Are the children expected to learn off and define this terminology? 

Of course not. In the same way as a teacher might use such terminology as simile, metaphor, alliteration etc to explain writing concepts in English, it is hoped that the teacher would use and reinforce specific terminology when appropriate, and in this way some of the children might also pick up this vocabulary and use it themselves when communicating their ideas. But it is not suggested or encouraged that these terms be drilled and “learnt off”.

We have a high number of children with dyslexia/English as a second language; should we avoid Operation Maths because of the language?

Actually, quite the opposite. While the teaching panels of Operation Maths may have more mathematical vocabulary that the competitor texts, they also have many more visual images that explain and demonstrate the concepts, and both the teaching panels and the exercises that follow are more concrete-based and pictorial in nature. This will in fact be better for children with limited language or language difficulties, as opposed to texts which are largely just digits and symbols, which themselves can be too abstract, particularly for senior classes. Plus, deliberately avoiding this language in primary only moves the issue on to becoming a bigger one when those children go to second level.
As mentioned previously, all of the Operation Maths programme is based on a CPA approach,  from the Pupils’ Book to the Discovery book, which is dominated by visual, rather than text, activities, to the free place value materials and frames, to the digital resources, eManipulatives and videos all of which place the emphasis on visual representations of content. This makes Operation Maths the most suitable programme for any child who is more of a visual learner.

Further suggestions, hints and tips:

Repetition, repetition, repetition! Whenever a new term is encountered don’t expect the children to know it,  understand it and use it straight away; research suggests that a child will typically need to encounter a word 15-20 times before they will start to use it. This is why it is important to use the term at every suitable opportunity and why in Operation Maths the term will be used repeatedly in various contexts to help this.

Use glossaries: As well as the Operation Maths glossary, use Jenny Eather’s, Maths Dictionary for Kids to look up new terminology and explore the visual and interactive activities that typically accompany each term. Another useful resource are the Math Vocabulary Cards from the Math Learning Centre, available to use online or download as a  free app. However, bear in mind that, while a definition in a glossary is useful, new terms must be also understood from meaningful examples and contexts relevant to the child.

Maths Word Wall: Whenever you encounter new terminology display it on your maths wall for future reference. This can be printed out vocabulary posters from the internet or small flash cards/A4 posters created by the children themselves. Aim to always include a pictorial representation and not just text. There are also lots of printable charts and posters available to download free from Jenny Eather’s, Maths Dictionary for Kids .

Start a personal maths dictionary: This allows children to keep a personal record of the vocabulary they encounter. Operation Maths users can use the vocabulary sections in the Discovery Book, where the children in 3rd and 4th must match the term to a definition and to an example. In Operation Maths 5, the children must provide the term to match the definition and, in Operation Maths 6, the children must provide the definition to match the term, as well as drawing an example in both cases. Thus the activities are getting slightly more difficult at each class level while continuing to emphasise the visual representations.

Use Number Talks: Through the regular use of Number Talks the children will begin to appreciate how having a good grasp of the correct mathematical language can help them explain their thinking in a more accurate and efficient way during number talks. Furthermore, he/she will realise that it is easier to understand the approach of a peer when they use terminology that he/she recognises and understands.

Make it fun: Play games such as matching games or “Just a Minute” word games.

Use matching activities, true or false, always, sometimes, never true etc: These type of language activities are included in the Operations Maths books to reinforce and consolidate the language acquisition. Also included are  oral discussion activities and “Talk Time” activities, to further promote discussion and exploration.


Further reading:

Developing mathematical vocabulary