5 Ways to Teach Place Value and Word Form

Once your students can count past 20, it's a good time to teach them place value.  I'm glad our curriculum in fourth grade starts with place value.  It makes sense that students understand what a number with multiple digits means and how to say it before we ask them to find products with 4 or more digits!   So to start out our year, I want to share with you 5 ways to teach place value and word form.

1.  Money (Hands on Learning)

The biggest hook I have for teaching place value is MONEY.  I ask students what is it about big numbers, like millions, billions, or more, that interests them the most.  Usually we get to money early on in that introductory discussion!  I have students start sorting play money on a place value chart to keep the learning tactile. 

There are several activities you can do with small groups, a place value chart, and money.  Students can build numbers (show me $23, 852).  Vary the number of places according to your objective and their zone of proximal development.  You can repeat this activity later in the year when teaching estimating as well as decimal place value by introducing dimes and pennies as tenths and hundredths.  You can also use these materials to add numbers.  I like to start with multiples of ten, such as "What is $2,000 more than $23,852?"  You can multiply, such as "Show me 3 sets of $42,312."  You can divide, as shown here.  And of course, you can demonstrate regrouping, such as, "I notice when I added I got 12 bills in the thousands place.  I'll trade ten of them in for the place to the right of it, which is ten times as much." 

2.  Be the Number (Interpersonal Learning)
The second place value lesson will always hold a special place in my heart, because it's the reason I was hired at my present school (skip this paragraph to get to the lesson itself, or read on if you'd like my origin story, haha).  I got called in mid September for the fourth grade position when funding came through for the present teacher to take on a different role (so no red flags there in terms of why there was a vacancy).  When I arrived for my interview I had a gut reaction like never before; I felt like this could be home.  My interview went better than usual (I said things like "when I work here," not in an overconfident way, but because I was feeling it).  The panel was leaning toward the more outgoing other candidate, I later learned, but I was the second choice going into round 2, which was to come and teach a lesson.  I was given the option between reading and math (place value).  While the other candidate did a read aloud (and failed to impress) here is the lesson I taught that won over the panel (and the children).
Without seeing any of their curricular materials, I decided direct instruction of place value should point out that there are patterns to numbers.  There are times to say the period (thousand, million, and so on), times to say the word "hundred" in every period, and there are numbers I like to call "buddy numbers," such as "forty-seven" as opposed to "four, seven."  And speaking of the periods, in standard form, their names aren't explicitly written.  No, instead of writing "million," or using a period as in the punctuation mark, we write a comma (go figure?).  So to make all these patterns come alive for students, I created an activity for this group of students that I was meeting for the very first time called "Be the Number." 

After selling them on the idea that we'd be learning how to read big numbers like 247,856,423, I told them I was going to need some volunteers to come up and Be the Number.  Or more to the point, a part of the number.  And they'd hold up a sign.  Then I told them, "I also want to get to know you all a little bit.  I'm sure some of you have a good friend in this class.  Some of you love to be the center of attention.  And some of you don't talk very much but you're hard workers.  However you see yourself, I am going to need your help to build the number.  And if you aren't called to come up to stand in front of the class and hold up a part of the number, I need your help too, because audience participation is going to support the building of this big number, so are you ready?
First, raise your hand if you have a good friend in this class [I'll spare you the part where I asked their names each time so the interview panel saw I was already getting to know the children; there were 2 parents on the panel so I wanted them to see me getting to know their children right away].  Okay you two are the number 23.  Not '2 and 3;' you're going to say your buddy name together, 'twenty three.'  Next, I need someone who loves to be the center of attention.  Okay, Mickey, you come on up.  You are going to say your number, 'Four,' nice and loud.  Now we, the audience, are going to give you that attention you love by answering you with the word, 'hundred.'  Next, I need someone who is a quiet worker.  You're going to hold up this comma, and you don't need to say anything.  And we, the audience, are going to respect your need for quiet work by whispering, 'thousand.'"  

Now I'm hoping you can see where this lesson is going, choosing partners, centers of attention, and calm students, so I'll skip ahead to how the final number sounds:

Kid #11, loudly:  Two
Audience: Hundred
Kids #10 & #9:  Forty-seven
Kid #8 silently holds up comma, Audience whispers:  Million 
Kid #7, loudly:  Eight
Audience: Hundred
Kids #6 & #5:  Fifty-six
Kid #4 silently holds up comma, Audience whispers:  Thousand
Kid #3, loudly:  Four
Audience: Hundred
Kids #2 & #1:  Twenty-three
Round of applause!

The only preparation I needed here were about a dozen pieces of colored card stock (all one color so as not to be distracting in terms of patterns) with a number on each and two with commas.  Of course there was repetition built during the construction of the number as roles were being added in in so we practiced saying 423, then 56,423, then 47,856,423 before getting to the final number.  And I did plenty of pointing at who was meant to be speaking to help prompt the speakers throughout.  The social emotional part of the lesson, in my opinion, was even more important than the place value, but of course it also cements the concept of patterns in math by creating a real world framework.  The anchor chart in this post was designed to anchor students' thinking to the activity throughout the rest of the unit.  
3.  Chips (Hands on Learning)
The chips can be used the same way as the money, as explained above, but it makes the concept slightly more abstract.  The numbers on the chips are especially helpful when you move into decimal place value, since there is no coin representing a thousandth of a cent. 

4.  Number lines (Visual Learning)

If you like to teach math like I usually do, starting with hands on learning and then moving on to visual before ending with the abstract, Number Line Worksheets are a great way to do it.  I feel like there is a lot of buzz about fraction and decimal number lines, which I use as well, but that's just even more reason to start with whole numbers when exploring place value.  Having students look at the increments on these pages get them ready for estimating, as well as thinking flexibly about units in measurement, graphing, and of course, place value.  

5.  Games (Logical)
Finally, a math concept isn't complete for me unless we can make a game out of it.  You may notice that I put games last in my list.  The reason is I find a lot of math games are not playable unless students already understand the concept they are practicing.  That's just going to lead to off task behaviors.  So either save the games for independent practice or make sure you are partnering a motivated student who struggles with a student who enjoys taking on a teaching role (games are wonderful in those partnerships).  I have multiple games that I use for place value practice:

a.  Power of Ten is a card game.  This low-prep game has just 8 cards to cut out for each level (I have a whole number version with 3 levels as well as a decimal version).  Students draw cards to see if they are multiplying their number by 10 or 100 and moving across the place value chart in the process. 

    b.  Codebreaker requires even less preparation!  You can make copies of the Codebreaker gameboard for students to write on, or laminate/stick them in screen protectors.  Each partner writes a number of their choosing at the top, then asks specific questions about their opponent's number, such as, "Is the number in the hundreds place less than 5?"  I have a decimal version as well. 

    c.  If you're moving on from the concept of place value and word form and into the application of place value, such as comparing numbers, Comparing and Ordering Peppers is a fun game similar to the card game War.  I use the Scoville units for measuring the heat of peppers (and researched them so they are factual) because my many of my fourth graders are fascinated with which is the hottest pepper.  You can read more about my Comparing and Ordering Peppers Game here.  

If these activities sound engaging to you, you can find them all here in my Place Value category page.  If they're not exactly what you're looking for, or you have a question about the implementation, leave me a comment on the blog or "Ask a question" on Teacher Pay Teachers.  

Take Care!

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