MSU scholars: How to add number talks to special education mathematics classrooms

August 25, 2022

Number talks are a tool used in K-12 classrooms to engage students in mathematical learning and reasoning. While increasingly being used in general education classrooms, it is not often employed in special education classrooms. MSU College of Education scholars have developed suggestions on how educators can incorporate number talks into special education classrooms sustainably and effectively. 

2022 MSU graduate Mak Perez leads a mathematics lesson. Perez was one of two College of Education student commencement speakers for the Class of 2022.


The suggestions were created by the mother/daughter duo of Mary, a retired teacher and superintendent who is an instructor in the college, and Emily Bouck, a professor of special education and the college’s interim associate dean for research.  

In their June 2022 article in Intervention in School and Clinic, the Boucks reiterate the standard six-step process educators can use to consistently incorporate number talks into learning routines:  

  1. Bring students to a centralized location, such as a rug or near the whiteboard 
  1. Present the problem 
  1. Allow students to work independently  
  1. Ask students to share how many strategies they have identified for solving the problem (this can be done by students holding up number of fingers; i.e., one finger = one strategy) 
  1. Ask students to elaborate on how they arrived at that solution  
  1. Clarify any misconceptions or inaccuracies students presented  

Number talks are an important strategy in a changing education landscape, the scholars add.  

When used in general education classrooms, research has found number talks can improve mathematical assessment scores. The tactic is increasingly being embedded into these learning spaces across K-12 grade levels.  

Yet, the Boucks say, this strategy has not been used as frequently in special education, and there is limited contemporary research on mathematics strategies for students with disabilities. 

Emily Bouck headshot
Emily Bouck

Additional research shows there is a need for more support: About 5% of school-age children experience a mathematics disability, the Boucks cite in their research, and many others with disabilities who do not have a defined mathematical disability “still experience difficulty [in the subject] or receive [limited] support.”  

The Boucks’ publication fills a gap in the field by providing actionable tips educators can use. 


Though not a typical element of number talks—which focus on understanding and mental processing—the Boucks suggest special education teachers use manipulatives (base-10 blocks, pretend money, visual representations, etc.) to expand on concepts for struggling students. The additional tools can further support student learning as students gain understanding and confidence in their skills.  

Mary Bouck

Special education teachers may also consider modeling strategies for students to prompt learning. This can expand students’ fluency and comprehension, while also exposing them to strategies that they may not know or did not consider. In other words, if students cannot think of or do not share a strategy to solve a problem, the teacher can model through thinking aloud on one way the problem could be solved.  

“Number talks can serve as a means of formative assessment,” the scholars wrote in their article. “These talks can serve as an important addition beyond curriculum-based measurements to determine whether students are responding to interventions.” 

Teachers can use the strategy to conduct assessments in the moment and over time with students. The Boucks suggest keeping a document on how many strategies students identified (both correct and incorrect) and how regularly they solved problem types correctly. Examining these results will illuminate areas the teacher may consider teaching again in a different way, or areas in which additional interventions and supports are needed.  

The key, the Boucks say, is to incorporate number talks regularly and routinely as part of learning. Over time, students will increase their understanding and improve the ease, speed, and accuracy of solving problems.