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How to Teach Math Using Counters


Math counters have so many uses, and are VERY easy to come by.  They are easily my go-to manipulative for teaching math.  In the classroom, I have used two-color counters, colored blocks and tiles, and small plastic toys with students to reinforce skills.  At home, dry beans, marbles, blocks, or stones can easily be turned into counters to assist with homework.  Counters can be used to practice everything from counting and sorting to addition and subtraction to integers.  Therefore, they have proven effective for students of all ages and all ability levels.  Below, I detail 3 of my favorite uses for counters in math:

1. Counting and Sorting: Early elementary students benefit from the use of manipulatives as they begin to develop a number sense.  Of course, students can simply practice counting objects.  Counters can be used for grouping and skip counting as well.  Additionally, have students sort objects into groups based on size, color, or shape.  The groups can then be used to reinforce concepts such as more/less and greater/fewer.

2. Basic Operations:  Objects can be used to reinforce teaching of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – including positive and negative numbers.  For example, if students are given the addition problem of 4+2=?, allow the student to make a group of 4 and a group of 2 then to count how many counters there are all together.  If the student is working with integers, use counters of 2 different colors – one for positive numbers and one for negative.  Given the problem -7+2=?, students would use 7 “negative” blocks and 2 “positive” blocks.  Positive blocks cancel out negative blocks, and students will discover that there are 5 “negative” blocks left over.  Therefore, the answer would be “-5”.

 3. Area and Volume: Tiles and blocks/cubes are most effective for reinforcing skills such as area and volume.  They can be used to create multidimensional figures to make these measurement concepts much more concrete.  If a figure on paper is given a length of 5 units and a width of 3 units, the students will build a rectangle that is 3 blocks wide and 5 blocks wide.  They are then able to simply count the number of tiles used to build the figure to see that the area would be 15 square units.  Volume can be taught in a very similar way using cubes and including the measurements for the height.  As students increase their understanding, they are then able to make connections to the operations and formulas that are used to determine area and volume.

Hopefully, as you read these ideas, you are already thinking of other ways that you can use counters and other manipulatives to reinforce math concepts that your students are learning – at school and at home.  As you can see, the possibilities are endless!