Stop teaching ‘thousands’

If you haven’t already read my rant Stop teaching simile! then I’d suggest starting with that first. However, having started something, now things keep cropping up that I think the same sort of thing about, so here’s an addition to what seems to be turning into a series of “Stop teaching….” posts.

Stop teaching thousands

This will seem silly at first. Of course we need to teach thousands. But I’m coming to the conclusion that we tackle it in the wrong way in some ways. We expect children to work with increasingly large numbers as they go through primary education, and so once they seem to have grasped hundreds, it seems to make sense to move them onto thousands. Except, there’s a difference in the way the numbers work here, and it’s not always obvious when we teach it in that way.

The problem is not so much the thousands, and the next ‘column’ in our place value system. We often call it the ‘ten-thousands’ column, but like with the ‘tens’ column, we don’t often use that language for numbers that include a digit in that place.

Consider the number 54,321.

We don’t treat the 5 as a digit in its own right here; rather it becomes the tens digit of the section of the number that we describe as 54 thousand. It works just like the tens digit.

The same is true as we move over one more column. Consider 654,321

Here the 6 is merely part of the 654 thousands that are needed. It’s why we use commas after every third digit starting from the right. It’s not just a handy number, it actually helps us to read them.

So when we teach thousands, we should teach them as a block. It makes dealing with larger numbers much simpler. Recognising that each section of up to 3 digits is read as a single ‘chunk’ of a number makes it easier to read large numbers, and to avoid the common errors with placeholder zeroes. When a child needs to write four hundred and six thousand, and seventy four, it’s much easier to think of the blocks of 406 in the thousands block, and then 74 in the units section. It even invites the ‘punctuation’ of the number:

406, 074

(I grant you that the last section is lacking a name. I’m tending to prefer to call the very right-hand column “ones” and then refer to the last three digits as units, but there may be a better term. Suggestions welcome!)

The wondrous thing about so much of maths is that patterns are often scalable. The same system now allows us to consider millions, billions (so long as you’ve come to terms with the US billion) and to extend the system in groups of three, rather than one place at a time. Children are then very quickly able to read

123,456,789

as 123 million, 456 thousand, 789.

It also allows them to see the structure of the system so that they can identify any point in the place value structure. So, in the case above the digit 5 is clearly in the tens position within the thousands block: it shows us how many tens of thousands there are.

So, in truth, the argument is not for teachers to stop teaching thousands, but rather to consider thousands as a block of three digits in the numbering system following the HTO pattern.

bmto

Perhaps most importantly, before even thinking about numbers larger than 999, we should ensure that children have a secure understanding the relationships between the first three digits and their positions, fully grasping the nature of powers of 10. Once that is secure, rather than simply extending to thousands, it should be easier to teach the whole thousands block, right up to 999,999 with ease – and then to further extend.


Since posting this, Alex Weatherall has raised some perfectly reasonable points about the use of this structure. As with so many things, there is a risk that it becomes a prop which fails to secure clear understanding. So let me stress, I’m not proposing that we extend place value grids in this way. I present the image merely to make the point. My personal view is that if a child still needs a place value chart to organise numbers, then they shouldn’t be dealing with anything greater than a three-digit number.

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17 thoughts on “Stop teaching ‘thousands’

  1. Hayley Earl 25 July 2015 at 8:33 pm Reply

    I’m with you on this one, Michael, when I teach “big” numbers, I always do it this way. Lots of different coloured pens and drawing of circles comes in handy, I find. I spent ages teaching 4 digit numbers in the past and then coming unstuck with bigger ones. Teaching with “chunks” of numbers (I’ve never come up with a name, either) is much more intuitive.

  2. Mr L 25 July 2015 at 8:46 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Mr Lyons Maths and commented:
    Good read. Interesting points raised

  3. Joanne Edwards 25 July 2015 at 10:03 pm Reply

    Great idea – makes a lot of sense.

  4. teachwell 25 July 2015 at 10:45 pm Reply

    Good idea but need evidence MT, need evidence…

  5. Kate Cameron 26 July 2015 at 3:15 pm Reply

    I always start with basically this lesson with my (as was) level 4 booster y6 group. If you can make sure children understand how the number system works you open up a whole load of other understanding.

  6. KB (@NurturingAll) 26 July 2015 at 5:22 pm Reply

    This makes a lot of sense particularly for those students who have not quite grasped the idea of place value in large numbers. I can see how chunking numbers into blocks will make it easier for them to decode the value of each digit in the number. This is also relevant for some KS3 and KS4 students not just primary. Thanks for sharing.

  7. joiningthedebate 28 July 2015 at 11:41 pm Reply

    Really sorry to be pedantic but just for accuracy …
    The comma should no longer be used (even though the national lottery and the press continue to use it). A space is enough to let the digits appear as clusters of 3. I think the history for the present notation is to do with the number of countries in which a comma means a decimal point. ( eg more obvious than a chalk dot on a blackboard ) Anyway although there often would be no ambiguity there would with 4,345 (is it 4.345)
    So Britain decided to no longer use the point. I can’t remember how I know this and was actually starting to doubt myself but I eventually found this
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_31-0#Numbers
    Apologies again as I know your post was not about this point ( no pun intended)

    • Michael Tidd 28 July 2015 at 11:45 pm Reply

      Who in Britain decided to no longer use the comma?
      I don’t think I got the memo😉

      • Alex 29 July 2015 at 11:09 am Reply

        Who in Britain decided to use the american billion?

        • Alex 29 July 2015 at 11:09 am

          * American

        • Michael Tidd 29 July 2015 at 11:28 am

          Ah – that I can answer:
          Harold Wilson in 1974
          researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04440/SN04440.pdf

      • mrbennett1991 30 July 2015 at 8:35 pm Reply

        I remember being in year 4 when it happened and being told for the confusion it has with a decimal point.

        But then everywhere still seemed to use it, so I was a very confused child and now a confused adult.

        But I liked this blog, I will be using this approach when I teach ‘big’ numbers!

  8. […] that statement so I clicked on the link and read a very clear and easy-to-understand explanation of how to teach place value. I was very […]

  9. Joseph Nebus 11 August 2015 at 4:29 am Reply

    That does seem like a startlingly good way to organize thinking about the bigger units. Huh.

  10. wixlearningblog 10 September 2015 at 11:57 am Reply

    A very valid point and certainly a topic for conversation in the staffroom when reviewing calculations policy. Thanks.

  11. […] Education, mathematics, primary 25 July 2015 Comments: 14 […]

  12. James 16 October 2016 at 6:30 pm Reply

    This is the way Big Maths teaches it. Teach 3 digit, then 6 digit then 4/5 digit numbers.

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