Foster Productive Math Discussions With Sentence Stems - Down River Resources | Your Elementary Math Guide

Foster Productive Math Discussions With Sentence Stems

One plus two is easy to solve, but math discussions about joining two addends together tends to be much more difficult for students. Can you relate? My classroom goal is to encourage discourse and give students processing time to make sense of mathematical concepts. This concept is especially important as I teach mathematics in an English language learner classroom. I use math sentence stems to help foster productive discussions with my students.

Discourse in the Math Classroom Begins with Sentence Stems

Giving students the beginning of an academic response, or sentence stem, is an effective tool that will increase the quality of student participation in the classroom. Sentence stems allow students to focus their attention on content-specific vocabulary and provides students language support they need to engage in discussions. In addition, students begin to apply previously taught vocabulary in more formal speaking and writing.

What does this look like in an elementary classroom?

When using sentence stems for the first time, it is important to model, model, model...did I mention, modeling? This type of academic language may be used by you with ease (a highly sophisticated and VERY intelligent teacher), but getting your students to engage with the vocabulary is very unnatural. Here are three steps to foster productive math discussion in your classroom:

  • Before the lesson begins create a purposeful sentence stem that will correspond with your lesson. Write the sentence stem out in a prominent place. (Example: If you are focusing on addition or subtraction, your sentence stem might be: "The strategy I used was..." to use after solving.)

  • When completing the portion of your lesson that applies to the sentence stem, stop and model the use of the sentence stem. 
Mathematicians, we are going to focus on the strategies we are using to join two numbers together. I am going to want to know what strategy you are using today. I want you to watch and listen to me as I show you how to use the sentence stem.

Here is my sentence stem. (Point to the sentence stem). It says, "The strategy I used was..." So, I need to think about the strategy I used today to join the two numbers together. (Pause showing that you are thinking. Then use a gesture or point to the sentence stem as you complete the sentence.) The strategy I used today was counting on."
If you have a poster or anchor chart with your addition strategies, or the concept you are teaching, it will add an additional scaffold and support for students, especially English language learners.
  • Give the students their own problem to solve and allow them to work with a partner or small group. When the group is done working, prompt them with the sentence stem and give them time to generate their response. Time and practice are the two essential components of this step. Students, especially those who need language support, need time to process the information you provided them so that they can apply it to their individualized problem.
The use of partnerships or small groups provides an additional support so the students can vocalize their thinking and refine it before they need to present their sentence to the whole group. This is a great way to build a positive classroom culture where all students feel respected.
If your students can talk about their thinking in mathematics or any other subject, can you imagine what type of learning opportunities you are fostering in your classroom? Your students' active participation in classroom discussion is the vehicle for deepening understanding and building comprehension that will enhance their educational experience.

I hope this post inspired you to foster productive math discussions, and if you want to use my set of math sentence stems for your classroom, you can find them in my TpT store!

What are some things you do to foster math discussions in your classroom?

Happy Modeling! 


Marzano, R.J. (2004). The developing vision of vocabulary instruction. In J.F. Baumann & E.J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: From research to practice (pp. 159–176). New York: Guilford Press.

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