Teaching Place Value to 1st Graders: Simple Tricks & Tips

Text says: Teaching Place Value to 1st Graders. Photo shows 6 blue tens blocks and 14 ones blocks.

Teaching place value. It’s critical because it’s a foundation to understanding our number system, but it also presents a challenge for some children. They have to shift from the one by one counting they have practiced for years to an understanding that “one” can actually represent ten, one hundred, or more.

But, as a teacher, there are things you can do to make this task easier for your students. Intentional teaching helps them be successful with this new math task. Keep reading to learn some intentional teaching moves that will support your students as they learn about place value.

Solidify Skip Counting:

In order to count base ten blocks, students need to be able to count by 10s and 1s, and switch easily between the two. Weeks before you start teaching place value, practice counting by tens with your students, particularly past 100. (You might need to practice counting by 1s past 100, too.) If your students need extra practice, you can incorporate it into your morning meeting or pull a small group of students a few times a week to practice counting by tens. This foundation of counting by 10s and by 1s is critical to counting base ten blocks and understanding place value.

Check out this blog post for more fun ways to practice skip counting.

Teach Stop and Start Counting:

Once your students are pretty solid with basic skip counting, you can introduce “stop and start counting.” This routine prepares students for switching between 10s and 1s when counting. Have students start by counting by 10s, then after several numbers (ex: 10, 20, 30, 40..), tell them to stop and count by 1s from the number they stopped at (41, 42, 43, 44…) Expect your students to be slow the first several times, but they will pick up speed as this becomes more familiar.

If you want to practice this in a small group, you can have students go around the circle, with each student saying one number. Start with several kids counting by tens on their turn, then stop and switch to ones.

Introduce Place Value Blocks Slowly:

Photo shows a stack of blue ten blocks.

In the beginning, limit your teaching to tens and ones. Students need to solidify their understanding of tens and ones before moving on to larger numbers. Moving on to hundreds too soon can confuse students. 

Early in the process, you will want to help students practice place value by using base ten blocks. These blocks make this abstract number concept more concrete and easy to understand. Base ten blocks help students understand how ten objects can be grouped into a set that equals ten. Encourage students to count the connected blocks on the ten piece to verify that each one contains ten. 

Once students are generally understand how base ten blocks work, you can use games to practice counting the mixed groups of tens and ones. These games will help them become faster and more automatic with their counting. Keep reading to learn about some fun games.

Continue to practice with only tens and ones until students are consistent with counting them. Once they seem to understand how to group ones to make ten (repeatedly), they are ready for hundreds. 

Photo shows a stack of tens blocks with 6 ones blocks.

Teach about Exchanges:

It’s easy to overlook this key part of teaching place value. But exchanges prepare students for regrouping in addition and subtraction, so it is critical to devote instructional time to this key concept.

Photo shows 6 blue tens blocks with 14 ones cubes.

What do I mean by “exchanges?” This is the understanding that if you have 13 ones cubes, it is the same as 1 ten and 3 ones. Once students understand how to count tens and ones, you can introduce exchanges. Start with teen numbers, using ones cubes. Have students count all the ones blocks individually (ex: 16.) Then have them trade 10 of them for a ten block and count again. Help them to understand that both representations equal 16 – that it’s two different ways to represent the same number.

Later, when you work with hundreds, again help students to see how they can exchange tens to make 100. When you teach regrouping with addition (and later subtraction), remind students of these exchanges. It might even be helpful to pull out the base ten blocks for a day or two, making the concept concrete once again.

Use Place Value Games:

You can add a variety of place value games to your math centers or math rotations. They can even be used during whole group lessons to differentiate practice (by ones, tens or hundreds, based on students’ current understandings.) Here are a few simple place value games:

Place Value Exchange Game:

Students play in groups of 2-3. Create a “bank” with tens blocks and ones blocks. Students roll the die and take that many ones cubes. Once they have ten ones cubes, they put them in the bank and exchange for a tens block. Keep playing until one player reaches 100. 

Place Value War:

Place Value War is played like the card game War. Each player turns over a card and counts the blocks shown on their card. The player with the greatest value wins both cards. When there is a tie (a war), students turn over a new card and the winner takes all the cards. 

Photo shows cards with yellow place value blocks and numerals; demonstrating the game Place Value War.

Consider using different versions, based on your students’ current understandings about place value. My store includes versions that go to 100 or 1,000, as well as a version that includes exchanging ones for tens.

Place Value Sort:

When working with exchanges of ones for tens, try this FREE place value sort. Each of the included numbers is represented several ways with blocks. Students need to count the blocks on each card and match it to the number. It’s a perfect addition to math centers!

Photo shows cards with yellow place value blocks sorted by the numeral they represent. Some cards have more than ten ones-blocks.

I Have… Who Has…? Games:

Three cards from an I Have, Who Has...? game - showing place value blocks up to 1000.

These fun circle games are perfect for morning meeting or a math review time. This game features cards with a numeral and a representation of a number using place value blocks. Students take turns counting their blocks and asking who has the number that matches their blocks. The child with the matching numeral counts her blocks and asks for the matching number next. It can be fun to time how long it takes for the class to complete the game by finding all the matches – then they can try to beat their best time the following day.

By being intentional in your instruction (focusing first on skip counting, then slowly introducing base ten blocks) you can make place value easy and meaningful for your students. With this careful teaching, your students will better understand our number system and be set for regrouping in addition and subtraction.

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Text says: Teaching Place Value to 1st Graders. Photo shows 6 blue tens blocks and 14 ones blocks.

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