Drs. Amber Candela and Melissa Boston, Strengthening Tasks Through Student Talk

Mike Wallus, Vice President for Educator Support


In this episode, we are talking with Drs. Amber Candela and Melissa Boston about powerful but practical strategies for supporting student talk in the elementary math classroom.

More Episodes


Discourse Actions to Promote Student Access

Making Sense of Mathematics for Teaching to Inform Instructional Quality

5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions, 2nd edition


Mike Wallus: One of the goals I had in mind when we first began recording Rounding Up was to bring to life the best practices that we aspire to in math education and to offer entry points so that educators would feel comfortable trying them out in their classrooms. Today, we're talking with Drs. Amber Candela and Melissa Boston about powerful but practical strategies for supporting student talk in the elementary math classroom. 

Welcome to the podcast, Amber and Melissa. We're really excited to be talking with you today.

Amber Candela: Thank you for having us. 

Melissa Boston: Yes, thank you.

Mike: So we've done previous episodes on the importance of offering kids rich tasks, but one of the things that you two would likely argue is that rich tasks are necessary, but they're not necessarily sufficient, and that talk is actually what makes the learning experience really blossom. Is that a fair representation of where you all are at?

Melissa: Yes. I think that sums it up very well. In our work, which we've built on great ideas from Smith and Stein, about tasks and the importance of cognitively challenging tasks and work on the importance of talk in the classroom. Historically, it was often referred to as “talk moves.” We've taken up the term “discourse actions” to think about how do the actions a teacher takes around asking questions and positioning students in the classroom—and particularly these talk moves or discourse actions that we've named “linking” and “press”—how those support student learning while students are engaging with a challenging task.

Mike: So I wonder if we could take each of the practices separately and talk through them and then talk a little bit about how they work in tandem. And Melissa, I'm wondering if you could start unpacking this whole practice of linking. How would you describe linking and the purpose it plays for someone who, the term is new for them?

Melissa: I think as mathematics teachers, when we hear “linking,” we immediately think about the mathematics and linking representations or linking strategies. But we’re using it very specifically here as a discourse action to refer to how a teacher links student talk in the classroom and the explicit moves a teacher makes to link students' ideas. 

Sometimes a linking move is signaled by the teacher using a student's name, so referring to a strategy or an idea that a student might've offered. Sometimes linking might happen if a teacher revoices a student's idea and puts it back out there for the class to consider. The idea is in the way that we're using linking, that it's links within the learning community, so links between people in the classroom and the ideas offered by those people, of course. But the important thing here that we're looking for is how the links between people are established in the verbal, the explicit talk moves or discourse actions that the teacher's making.

Mike: What might that sound like?

Melissa: So that might sound like, “Oh, I noticed that Amber used a table. Amber, tell us how you used a table.” And then after Amber would explain her table, I might say, “Mike, can you tell me what this line of Amber's table means?” or “How is her table different from the table you created?”

Mike: You're making me think about those two aspects, Melissa, this idea that there's mathematical value for the class, but there's also this connectivity that happens when you're doing linking. And I wonder how you think about the value that that has in a classroom. 

Melissa: We definitely have talked about that in our work as well. I’m thinking about how a teacher can elevate a student's status in mathematics by using their name or using their idea, just marking or identifying something that the student said is mathematically important that's worthy of the class considering further. Creating these opportunities for student-to-student talk by asking students to compare their strategies or if they have something to add on to what another student said. Sometimes just asking them to repeat what another student said so that there's a different accountability for listening to your peers. If you can count on the teacher to revoice everything, you could tune out what your peers are saying, but if you might be asked to restate what one of your classmates had just said, now there's a bit more of an investment in really listening and understanding and making sense.

Mike: Yeah, I really appreciate this idea that there's a way in which that conversation can elevate a student's ideas, but also to raise a student's status by naming their idea and positioning it as important.

Melissa: I have a good example from a high school classroom where a student [...] was able to solve the contextual problem about systems of equations, so two equations, and it was important for the story when the two equations or the two lines intersected. And so one student was able to do that very symbolically: they created a graph, they solved the system of equations. Where another student said, “Oh, I see what you did. You found the difference in the cost per minute, and you also found the difference in the starting point, and then one had to catch up to the other.” 

And so the way that the teacher kind of positioned those two strategies, one had used a sensemaking approach based really in the context. The other had used their knowledge of algebra. And by positioning them together, it was actually the student who had used the algebra had higher academic status, but the student who had reasoned through it had made this breakthrough that was really the aha moment for the class.

Mike: That is super cool. 

Amber, can we shift to “press” and ask you to talk a little bit about what press looks like?

Amber: Absolutely. So how Melissa was talking about linking is holding students accountable to the community; press is more around holding students accountable to the mathematics. 

And so the questions the teacher is going to ask [are] going to be more related specifically to the mathematics. So, “Can you explain your reasoning?” “How did you get that answer?” “What does this x mean?” “What does that intersection point mean?” And so the questions are more targeted at keeping the math conversation in the public space longer.

Mike: I thought it was really helpful to just hear the example that Melissa shared. I'm wondering if there's an example that comes to mind that might shed some light on this.

Amber: So when I'm in elementary classrooms and teachers are asking their kids about different problems, and kids will be like, “I got 2.” OK, “How did you get 2?” “What operation did you use?” “Why did you use addition when you could have used something else?” 

So it's really pressing at the, “Yes, you got the answer, but how did you get the answer?” “How does it make sense to you?”, so that you're making the kids rather than the teacher justify the mathematics that's involved. And they're the ones validating their answers and saying, “Yes, this is why I did this because …”.

Mike: I think there was a point when I was listening to the two of you speak about this where—and forgive me if I paraphrase this a little bit—but you had an example where a teacher was interacting with a student and the student said something to the effect of, “I get it” or “I understand.” And the teacher came back and she said, “And what do you understand?” And it was really interesting because it threw the justification back to the student.

Amber: Right. Really what the linking and press [do, they keep] the math actionable longer to all of the peers in the room. So it's having this discussion out loud publicly. So if you didn't get the problem fully all the way, you can hear your peers through the press moves, talk about the mathematics,. And then you can use the linking moves to think through, “Well, maybe if Mike didn't understand, if he revoices Melissa's comment, he has the opportunity to practice this mathematics speaking it.” And then you might be able to take that and be like, “Oh, wait, I think I know how to finish solving the problem now.”

Mike: I think the part that I want to pull back and linger on a little bit is [that] part of the purpose of press is to keep the conversation about the mathematics in the space longer for kids to be able to have access to those ideas. I want y'all to unpack that just a little bit.

Amber: Having linking and press at the end is holding the conversation longer in the classroom. And so the teacher is using the press moves to get at the mathematics so the kids can access it more. And then by linking, you're bringing in the community to that space and inviting them to add: “What do you agree [with]?” “Do you disagree?” “Can you revoice what someone said?” “Do you have any questions about what's happening?”

Melissa: So when we talk about discourse actions, the initial discourse action would be the questions that the teacher asks. So there's a good task to start with. Students have worked on this task and produced some solution strategies. Now we're ready to discuss them. The teacher asks some questions so that students start to present or share their work and then it's after students' response [that] linking and press come in as these follow-up moves to do what Amber said: to have the mathematics stay in the public space longer, to pull more kids into the public space longer. 

So we're hoping that by spending more time on the mathematics, and having more kids access the mathematics, that we're bringing more kids along for the ride with whatever mathematics it is that we're learning.

Mike: You're putting language to something that I don't know that I had before, which is this idea that the longer we can keep the conversation about the ideas publicly bouncing around—there are some kids who may need to hear an idea or a strategy or a concept articulated in multiple different ways to piece together their understanding.

Amber: And like Melissa was saying earlier, the thing that's great about linking is oftentimes in a classroom space, teachers ask a question, kids answer, the teacher moves on. The engagement does drop. But by keeping the conversation going longer, the linking piece of it, you might get called on to revoice, so you need to be actively paying attention to your peers because it's on the kids now. The math authority has been shared, so the kids are the ones also making sense of what's happening. But it's on me to listen to my peers because if I disagree, there's an expectation that I'll say that. Or if I agree or I might want to add on to what someone else is saying. 

So oftentimes I feel like this pattern of teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student happens, and then what can start to happen is teacher-student-student-student-teacher. And so it kind of creates this space where it's not just back and forth; it kind of popcorns more around with the kids.

Mike: You are starting to touch on something that I did want to talk about, though. Because I think when I came into this conversation, what was in my head is, like, how this supports kids in terms of their mathematical thinking. And I think where you two have started to go is: What happens to kids who are in a classroom where link and press are a common practice? And what happens to classrooms where you see this being enacted on a consistent basis? What does it mean for kids? What changes about their mathematical learning experience?

Melissa: You know, we observe a lot of classrooms, and it's really interesting when you see even primary grade students give an answer and immediately say, you know, “I think it's 5 because …”, and they provide their justification just as naturally as they provide their answer. Or they're listening to their peers and they're very eager to say, “I agree with you; I disagree with you, and here's why” or “I did something similar” or “Here's how my diagram is slightly different.” 

So to hear children and students taking that up is really great. And it just—[there’s] a big shift in the amount of time that you hear the teacher talking versus the amount of time you hear children talking and what you're able to take away as the teacher or the educator formatively about what they know and understand based on what you're hearing them say. And so [in] classrooms where this has become the norm, you see fewer instances where the teacher has to use linking and press because students are picking this up naturally.

Mike: As we were sitting here and I was listening to y'all talk, Amber, the thing that I wanted to come back to is I started reflecting on my own practice and how often, even if I was orchestrating or trying to sequence, it was teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student. It bounced back to me. And I'm really kind of intrigued by this idea—teacher-student-student-student-teacher—that the discourse, it's moving from a back and forth between one teacher, one student, rinse and repeat, and more students actually taking up the discourse. Am I getting that right?

Amber: Yes. And I think really the thought is we always want to talk about the mathematics, but we also have to have something for the community. And that's why the linking is there because we also need to hold kids accountable to the community that they're in as much as we need to hold them accountable to the mathematics.

Mike: So, Amber, I want to think about what does it look like to take this practice up? If you were going to give an educator a little nudge or maybe even just a starting point where teachers could take up linking and press, what might that look like? If you imagined, kind of, that first nudge or that first starting point that starts to build this practice?

Amber: We have some checklists with sentence stems in [them]. And I think it's taking those sentence stems and thinking about when I ask questions like, “How did you get that?” and “How do you know this about that answer?” That's when you're asking about the mathematics. And then when you start to ask, “Do you agree with what so-and-so said? Can you revoice what they said in your own words?”, that's holding kids accountable to the community and just really thinking about the purpose of asking this question. Do I want to know about the math or do I want to build the conversation between the students? And then once you realize what you want that to be, you have the stem for the question that you want to ask.

Mike: Same question, Melissa.

Melissa: I think if you have the teacher who is using good tasks and asking those good initial questions that encourage thinking, reasoning, explanations, even starting by having them try out, once a student gives you a response, asking, “How do you know?” or “How did you get that?” and listening to what the student has to say. And then as the next follow-up, thinking about that linking move coming after that. So even a very formulaic approach where a student gives a response, you use a press move, hear what the student has to say, and then maybe put it back out to the class with a linking move. You know, “Would someone like to repeat what Amber just said?” or “Can someone restate that in their own words?” or whatever the linking move might be.

Mike: So if these two practices are new to someone who's listening, are there any particular resources or recommendations that you'd share with someone who wants to keep learning?

Amber: [laughs] Why, of course, we absolutely have resources. We wrote an article for the NCTM’s MTLT [Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12] called “Discourse Actions to Promote Student Access.” And there are some vignettes in there that you can read through and then there [are] checklists with sentence stems for each of the linking and press moves.

Melissa: Also, along with that article, we've used a lot of the resources from NCTM’s Principles to Actions [Professional Learning] Toolkit that's online, and some of the resources are free and accessible to everyone.

Amber: And if you wanted to dig in a bit more, we do have a book called Making Sense of Mathematics to Inform Instructional Quality. And that goes in-depth with all of our rubrics and has other scenarios and videos around the linking and press moves along with other parts of the rubrics that we were talking about earlier.

Mike: That's awesome. We will link all of that in our show notes. 

Thank you both so much for joining us. It was a real pleasure talking with you.

Amber: Thanks for having us. 

Melissa: Thank you.

Mike: This podcast is brought to you by The Math Learning Center and the Maier Math Foundation, dedicated to inspiring and enabling all individuals to discover and develop their mathematical confidence and ability.