Have you ever had a student who seemed to understand place value initially, but then when questions were asked just a little differently couldn’t really answer correctly? Younger students need a lot of hands on practice and a lot of discussions before moving on to pictorial and abstract. What about middle and upper elementary? As the learning targets get higher and the numbers get bigger, most students need to revisit basic place value concepts with hands on experiences and discussions to build or review understanding before moving on to bigger numbers.
When I first bring out the place value blocks, I give the students a few minutes to play with them. Just few. Then I tell my students they have had their chance to play and now it is time to “get serious”. Next I tell them that they will use the blocks to represent numbers. I will pick a two digit number such as 23 and ask them to show the number with blocks. Together we discuss the meaning of the number and I ask students to explain different ways to show the number (2 tens and 3 ones, 23 ones, 13 ones and one ten …) Then I go through the same song and dance with other numbers, some with 3 or 4 digits.
After a few minutes we will practice making place value tables and have a discussion about how to write and read numbers. Once students seem to have an idea of what is going on I will have them work in table groups or start center rotations to build numbers and work with peers to discuss place value. These Place Value Task Cards are great for centers or group work. Eventually (after minutes, hours, days – depending on your class) move on to pictorial. Teach students how to represent numbers in pictures.
Another important place value skill to teach early on and review a lot along the way is the relationship between the places. Ask students questions such as how many ones makes a ten or how many ones makes 4 tens … And then build it up to larger numbers, like how many hundreds makes 2 thousand. Give students hands on opportunities to figure out these relationships.