Giving Every Child a Voice: Using SEL in the Mathematics Classroom

I was recently consulting in a second grade classroom and, when I approached a little girl to ask a follow up question about her group’s work, another child answered: “Don’t ask her!  She doesn’t know how to talk.”

In that moment, I was stunned that this student, trying to adapt to a new country and learn a new language, was relegated to silence. When the day was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about how we might fix what seems like an insurmountable and very common problem. 

What tools can we give teachers that would give everyone access to the curriculum?

What strategies would allow peers to see each other as equals?

What approach would build a child’s self esteem instead of tearing it down?

It wasn’t until the next day that I got an answer.  Simple, but powerful, it’s called Accountable Talk.  Sentence frames such as, “I agree with you because…”, “I see it another way…”, “Can you add on to what ____ shared?” can be the ticket to student equity.

Students are taught specific sentence stems for use in discussion with their peers.  They can be posted on anchor charts, or given out as cards for students to use during group work.  Once taught, students are given lots of practice using the stems to answer questions and dig deep into whatever their academic endeavor.  

How Do These Simple Phrases Help Students?

Setting Expectations

Students can only learn if they feel safe (remember Maslow?).  If students know what to expect when they walk in your room, their anxiety will decrease and they will be able to focus on learning. 

Meeting Kids Where they Are

Giving kids the actual words that they need to use allows students at all levels to have entry points into the learning.  It doesn’t matter if English is not their first language or if they have a language processing disorder, or if they are just shy! Everyone in the group shares a common language.

Leveling the Playing Field

Kids are savvy, and the young girl who told me that her peer “Didn’t know how to talk” wasn’t trying to be mean.  She just noticed the obvious; her peer had no way to successfully contribute, and so she chose to opt-out.  Accountable Talk helps kids see each other as equal opportunity learners.  No one is “less than” or “other” because all students now have a way to engage.     

How Will These Sentence Stems Help You? 


Reteach Less

Using Accountable Talk stems decreases the amount of time you spend re-teaching because you are able to really see what students understand as they discuss in their groups.  You can’t assess a student who doesn’t speak.  You may be wasting time re-reaching students who actually do understand the material; you just didn’t know it because they were silent.

Create Space for Civil Discourse

Now more than ever, people need to be able to disagree with one another in a civil manner.  These are life skills that clearly need attention.  Using Accountable Talk stems regularly gives students practice disagreeing with others in a safe space.  It also allows students to feel like their voices are being heard.  This is critical as we ask students to meet the 21st Century Standards, and become productive citizens.

Simplify Your Classroom Routines

By using a common language, you decrease the amount of times that you have to explain to students what to do. You increase students’ independence as they rely on you less to answer, “What do we have to do?” Imagine having students who actually get right to work because they know what to do.

How Do You Get Started?

There are lots of resources on Accountable Talk stems (see the lesson plan below); they are also sometimes called “Talk Moves.”  Either way, find the appropriate version of phrases for your students’ grade level and plan to start with 2-3 phrases.

This is not an add-on.  Integrate this strategy into lessons you are already teaching.  

What About Other Subjects?  

This isn‘t just for mathematics.  Check out the language arts lesson we’ve shared too.  You’ll give kids the tools they need to justify their answers, ask their peers to justify theirs, and make their thinking visible by using this common language.

Start Small!

When you first start asking kids to talk more with their classmates, it could be bumpy, that’s okay.  Learning is messy.  It will be more so when you first start, as kids learn the expectations and learn what voice to use (“Low Flow” or “Formal Normal”). But the key is don’t give up!  If it’s chaotic the first few times, take the opportunity to debrief at the end.  Ask kids what they could do differently next time.  You’ll be surprised what they say!  


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