A tale of two conversations

Here are two conversations about hot chocolate.

The first one didn’t happen. The second one did. Read them both, then I’ll tell you about their meaning.

Both conversations begin on a cold November night in Minnesota. Unseasonably cold. Fourteen degrees, to be precise (–10 Celsius).

A cup of hot chocolate

Zero marshmallows for me on this cold night.

Tabitha (7 years old), Griffin (10 years old) and I get in the car to head for Tabitha’s basketball practice.

What might have been

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I won’t have any marshmallows, then. So I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin agrees that this is the way to go, and the conversation moves on to other things.

What actually happened

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have two marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I’ll have zero marshmallows in mine, then, so I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin (10 years old): I’ll have one marshmallow, and a small serving of Jell-O. Wait, no! I know! I’ll cut a marshmallow in half!

I presume that this is in order to maximize his allowable Jell-O serving, while still retaining some marshmallow in his hot chocolate. It’s a scheme nearly as complicated as credit default swaps.

So what do we learn?

One small difference changed the course of the conversation—my use of a number word. I could have said, “It counts as dessert if you have marshmallows in it.” But I did say, “It counts as dessert if you have two marshmallows in it.”

Using numbers—two marshmallows instead of just marshmallows—invited the children to talk about numbers. It invited them to use numbers to maximize their benefit. It invited them to think about numbers.

This invitation is important.

A few years back, researchers paid careful attention to the ways preschool teachers talked with their students. Those teachers who used more number words and concepts as they talked with children stimulated greater growth in math than those who used less math talk.

This was not a study about math instruction; it was a study about the math language that these teachers used when they weren’t teaching math. “Yes, you three may help me.” versus “Yes, you may help me.” is the sort of difference that matters.

Using number words and math concepts in everyday speech invites children to notice and to think about number. That’s what Talking Math with Your Kids is all about.

Link to full study ($)

12 thoughts on “A tale of two conversations

  1. It works well with words too. I hate that for years I chose simpler words so that students would understand more easily. Luckily, I figured out that by using more adult words with my own children, they’d catch on (and if not, a quick explanation helped satisfy their curiosity) AND they’d feel more comfortable with unfamiliar words. Love your stuff!

  2. Good stuff! I will work on this with my grandkids and show you blog to my girls. I wish I had done this when they were younger because math has never been any if our strong points. I always read to them and them to me but math is important too!
    Karen Blanchard, Author
    Adventures of the Ball Bug Boys

    • Never mind if math is not one of your strong point, just search for any topic on internet, and you’ll find several simplified versions are available. I learnt Quantum physics at 40 yrs on youtube….:-)

  3. This is great post – thanks. We too ‘talk numbers’ with our kids. In fact I learnt this from my mother who always used numbers in her conversation. She even helped me understand Pythagoras Theorem by the simple act of going across a broad path diagonally versus going along the other two sides of the right angled triangle. Sometimes our kids coax her to play online games like these and she does so with great enthusiasm!
    Your post brought back long buried memories – I plan to share your site with her.

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  5. I love your blog! The way we talk to our students is so important! Every moment is an opportunity for learning. Looking forward to reading more about math conversations!!!

  6. This is great a subtle yet sure way to get kids to identify with numbers. Wish I had learnt about it sooner, good thing it is not to late. Thanks for the tip and kept them coming.

  7. Reblogged this on The Future School and commented:
    It may take some effort initially to include mathematical concepts in your daily encounters with your child but it will pay off in the long run. Start small today.

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