Place Value Metaphor

During the summer I get to tutor a lot of elementary age students, remediating them on the basics.

Almost invariably I find that these students are confused about PLACE VALUE, and considering how critical this concept is to all of math, I decided to write this post.

Whenever I have the least suspicion that a student might be confused about place value, I check with a simple test.

I have them write down the number 22, then I ask them if they can tell me the difference between the two 2s. Often they cannot.

Tutoring a girl this past week I came up with a way of understanding place value that really resonated with the student. I want to share it because you may be able to use it, or a modification of it, with your students. First it’s important to know that this student’s mom teaches ballet, and the girl dances at her mom’s studio. 

I asked the girl if she has ever been to a ballet performance, and of course she said yes.

Then I drew a quick diagram of the stage and first few audience rows. I pointed to two seats, one in the front row, another seat several rows back. I asked her if the two seats would cost the same amount. This girl knew that the close seat costs more money because it is closer to the action on stage.

Then I used that idea to explain place value. I showed this girl that just as seats can be more or less valuable because of where they are, so too digits can be more or less value based on where they are in a number. 

She got this idea very quickly, and now she understands place value.

For children with different interests, use whatever makes sense. For example if you’re teaching a boy who loves baseball, make the rows of seats those at a baseball game, and so on.

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