4 strategies to help students carry out successful mathematical discourse

Creating meaningful discourse

The research is clear—complex knowledge and skills are best developed through social interaction. Discourse allows students to develop and hone their thinking in an open, supportive environment. When students share ideas, construct arguments, and listen to understand peer perspectives, they develop the verbal and mathematical reasoning skills that are essential for college, career, and life readiness. While these discussions occur regularly in English and language arts classrooms, discourse is not a common part of mathematics instruction.

What it takes and how to do it

During our recent webinar Mathematical Discourse: What It Takes & How to Do It, Peg Smith identified the reason for this: facilitating productive mathematical discourse is hard. It requires you to teach in a way that is likely completely different from the way you learned math and to loosen the grip of control on your classroom, allowing students to take over conversations.

Peg Smith didn’t simply explain the need and the challenge; she outlined four key strategies that can help you create classroom conditions that enable students to carry out successful math discourse without derailing instruction.

1.) Selecting the right task. Choose tasks that are aligned to the goal of the lesson and that require students to think for themselves rather than simply following previously learned material.

2.) Asking “good” questions and predicting responses. Educators who make discourse part of their routines say it can’t be done on the fly. They anticipate the kinds of approaches students might take and create open-ended questions (general and tied to specific strategies) that make thinking public and move students past roadblocks.

3.) Monitoring groups as they work and selecting and sequencing strategies groups will present during whole-class discussions. This allows you to start with easy solutions that all students understand and build to more-complex strategies.

4.) Holding students accountable for listening to others and making sense of solutions that are different from their own. They will then understand that YOU and their community value their thinking and that having the “right” answer is not always the point.

Adding Renaissance Accelerated Math® to the mix

Renaissance’s math solutions have been designed with mathematical discourse in mind, and they can provide invaluable practical support as you begin implementing these strategies in your own classroom.

  • Structuring tasks that allow all students to participate meaningfully when your class includes students at widely different levels of math proficiency can be a challenge. Consider starting your implementation of mathematical discourse by using Renaissance Star Math® data to group students with similar needs, identify the skills they are ready to learn, and provide discourse tasks targeted to those skills.

  • Finding tasks that are worthy of great discussion can be easy once you’ve identified the skills students are ready to learn. Because skills are linked to resources through our learning progressions, you can quickly find tasks for the skills at DOK 2 and DOK 3 that are well suited to mathematical discourse.

  • Giving students specific strategies for showing their work as they complete Renaissance Accelerated Math® practice problems builds the habit of recording their thinking so they are prepared to discuss their reasoning with others.

  • Discussing students’ daily math practice with them is also a great way to get the ball rolling on mathematical discourse. Accelerated Math assignments provide each student with practice at the right level of challenge. Students receive immediate feedback so they can review their work in preparation for conferencing with you. These individual conferences are a great way to build students’ confidence in talking about math. It also allows you to model the use of open-ended questions that will help them listen to and understand their peers’ reasoning. You can get some ideas from a master math teacher about how to structure student conferences by clicking this link to access a complimentary video from our Renaissance-U® professional development package.

Integrating mathematical discourse into your classroom is no easy feat. How do you encourage your students to engage in mathematical discourse? Share your tips and comments below!

If you missed Peg Smith’s webinar, check out the on-demand recording.


  1. Jenny says:

    You have to continue to monitor and discuss with students to ensure students stay on task.

    • Carolina says:

      Definitely! Just like we forget they forget as well. The continuous monitoring and discussing allows students to stay on task.

  2. Christina Ostrander says:

    Our desk plates with sentence stems and the posters in the room. Continued modeling throughout the school year.

  3. Amy Marquez says:

    Word walls and partner support really help

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *