Getting a Grip on Place Value for Common Core Math

By Christopher Danielson

Place value is an important concept to know for Common Core math. The fact that it took thousands of years for humans to develop a place value number system is an important sign that place value is difficult for people to learn. The usual way of writing numbers is a place value number system.

In other words, a limited set of symbols (called digits) builds numbers (0, 1, 2, 3, and so on up to 9) and you can write all numbers using these symbols. Most importantly, the values of these symbols change depending on where they appear in the number. In other words, their location (place) determines their worth (value).

Another way to understand the difficult of learning place value is to put yourself in the place of a young child for a moment. Look at the following mathematical expressions and identify how they’re alike and how they’re different:

35, 3x, and

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In each case, one symbol (3) is placed next to another (5, x, and 1/2).

The meaning of putting these symbols next to each other is different in each case. In the case of 3x, it means multiply. In the case of

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it means add. The case of 35 is by far the most complicated. Putting 3 and 5 next to each other doesn’t mean add 3 and 5, nor does it mean multiply these numbers. It means give 3 a new value and add 5 to that.

Understanding the number 10 as ten ones and as one group of ten may seem basic, but the concept is difficult for many children. Similarly, one hour is the same as 60 minutes, but children may struggle to think about it both ways.

The best way to become familiar with this sort of thinking is exposure. Talk with your child about things that come in groups; count the individual things and the groups. Go back and forth. Do it every day. It will become a natural way of seeing the world for you and your child, and it will help her with place value and later math as well.