How the Four Rs Can Reinvigorate Your Mathematics Classroom Discussion

By: , | 07/01/2020
Category: Instruction

Have you ever struggled to follow or stay focused in a full group discussion or stopped to think about what was being said, only to find the group had moved on and you now had no idea what they were talking about? In their 2009 book, Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, authors Suzanne H. Chapin, Catherine O'Connor, and Nancy Canavan Anderson present the idea that whole class discussions position students to co-construct knowledge. They also provide opportunities for students to engage in sustained reasoning. Therefore, it is critical to support students throughout full group discussions so they are able to process the conversation and develop important mathematical ideas and the accompanying language.

In  Routines for Reasoning: Fostering the Mathematical Practices in All Students, which we coauthored with Susan Janssen Creighton, we discuss how the Four Rs—repeating, rephrasing, rewording, and recording—help keep students in the conversation and the discourse productive. Productive math discussions start with ensuring all students hear the ideas being shared, have the time to process them, and then are able to communicate those ideas with increasing mathematical precision and language. Teachers can use the Four Rs strategy to ensure all their students have access to the mathematical ideas and language shared during full group math discussions.

The Four Rs strategy is made up of four distinct talk moves:

  • Repeat: A student restates the idea shared if not everyone has heard.
  • Rephrase: A student restates a classmate’s idea in their own words—often adding onto the initial idea—in order to deepen their and the class’s understanding of the idea.
  • Reword: Students restate the idea at hand using mathematical language to increase both the precision of the idea and the language with which it is being conveyed.
  • Record: The teacher publicly records the idea and/or specific language for students to reference.

Taken together, the above four moves help students refine ideas and language during full group conversations.

Getting Started with the Four Rs

When planning for a class discussion, anticipate the ideas students will share, and identify two to three math words or phrases that can help students communicate the idea with mathematical precision. Prepare to record these words/phrases if they come up in the conversation and/or you would like students to reword using them.

Before a student shares their math thinking in the full group, let the class know that you are going to ask one or two students to rephrase the ideas being shared. Remind students that they need to listen to the classmate who is talking.

Start having students repeat and rephrase. After an idea is shared, ask one student to repeat the idea, then ask another student to rephrase the idea. Some suggestions for ways to ask students to repeat or rephrase include:

  • “Who can share what they think they heard Alicia say?”
  • “What did Zack just say?”
  • “I don’t think the people in the back heard that. Who can repeat what Sharice said so everyone can hear?”
  • “What is another way we could say what Morgan said?”

Addressing Classroom Situations When Using the Four Rs

If you ask the class to restate or rephrase what was said and no one volunteers, ask the class if they heard what was shared.

  • If the class did not hear what was said, have the student repeat their idea, and then ask a classmate (or two!) to rephrase.
  • If the class did hear what was said, ask a student to repeat all or a part of the idea that was shared, and then ask for another classmate to rephrase.

If students struggle to rephrase or reword an idea they have heard, give students more processing time by having partners turn and talk to rephrase or reword the idea, and then share out with the full group.

If you ask a student to repeat or rephrase and they say they didn’t hear, have someone else repeat or rephrase the idea, but then go back to the original student and ask them to repeat or rephrase what was said to ensure accountability.

Common Pitfalls When Teachers Implement the Four Rs and How to Avoid Them

  • The teacher repeats or rephrases the idea instead of prompting students to process the idea. If the teacher does this regularly, students learn that they do not have to listen to each other.
  • When students are prompted to rephrase a classmate’s idea, they share their own thinking instead. If the teacher’s response is to orient back to the original student’s thinking, classmates learn quickly the importance of listening to each other.
  • After a student shares an idea, asking that same student to rephrase or reword, rather than engaging the student’s classmates. The repeating, rephrasing, and rewording should come from students who are making sense of the ideas, not the originator of the idea.
  • Prompting the students to reword prematurely. It is difficult to reword an idea with more precision when the idea is not yet clear in your mind. It is hard to communicate something you are struggling to make sense of, particularly if it is in a language you are not yet comfortable using. Therefore, hold off on prompting a reword until most/all students understand the idea.
  • Falling into the trap of explaining when you are recording. The role of the teacher when recording is to provide a visual support of student thinking—not to explain and take over student thinking.

Chapin, S. H., O’Connor, C., and Anderson, N. C. (2009). Classroom discussions: Using math talk to help students learn. 2nd edition. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.
Lampert, M., and Graziani, F. (2009). Instructional activities as a tool for teachers’ and teacher educators’ learning. The Elementary School Journal 109(5): 491–509.
Kazemi, E. and Hintz, A. (2014). Intentional talk: How to structure and lead productive mathematical discussions. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Kelemanik, G., Lucenta, A., & Janssen Creighton, S. Routines for reasoning: Fostering the mathematical practices in all students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
NCTM. (2014). Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

This post has been adapted from Integrating Effective Teaching Practices: Teacher Moves That Engage Students in Discourse and Mathematical Thinking. To learn more about implementing mathematical discourse in your school or district, click below to download the whitepaper.

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