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Using Place Value to Compare Numbers

In case we’ve forgotten how important a knowledge of place value is when comparing numbers, the Common Core State Standards are there to remind us:

“Compare two two-digit numbers based on meanings of the tens and ones digits,  recording the results of comparisons with the symbols >, =, and <.” 1.NBT.3 (CCSSM 2010)

“Compare two three-digit numbers based on meanings of the hundreds, tens, and ones digits, using  >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.” 2.NBT.4 (CCSSM 2010)

“Compare two multi-digit numbers based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.” 4.NBT.2 (CCSSM 2010)

Another important idea to notice about these standards is that kiddos as young as first grade are expected to understand and use the comparative symbols <, =, and >. Now might be a good time to jump over and read this post, Alligators are for Swamps, for a better alternative to the alligator method. Seriously, stop and do it now, please. 🙂

Here is a little freebie for using concrete materials to practice comparison.  There is an 11 x 17 version, if you’re fortunate enough to have a printer to accommodate ledger-sized paper.  I also made a cut-and-paste 8 1/2 x 11 version that can be assembled to make the mat shown below.  If you need some number cards like the ones shown, I have many themed versions in my TpT store.  You’ll find links to all the different themes from here.  I’ll even put them on sale for a few days so you can pick up your favorites!

This activity should grow with the kiddos.  Start by building numbers and comparing them with words so students really understand how the tens and ones impact the comparison.  Emphasize that if the top ten-frames are both filled, you only need to look at the “extras”.  Use the comparative word cards (“is less than”) to describe the comparison. Gradually move to using the formal vocabulary of tens (to describe a filled ten-frame) and ones (to describe the “extras”).  Introduce the symbols only after students are able to fluently compare numbers using tens and ones terminology.

Grab the 11 x 17 version here and the 8 1/2 x 11 cut-and-paste version here.  I’d love to read your comments on this activity and your experiences with comparing numbers in general!

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  1. Am I looking at the symbol cards incorrectly? The dots are there but the lines are not connected for one of the equal signs and greater than.

    1. Yes! I probably should have explained that. My 1st grade teachers wanted them to be part of the set. They are going to laminate the cards and let the kiddos connect the dots with a marker. So there is one set of the symbols with the lines drawn and another for the kiddos to write the lines in.

  2. I find the symbols are so abstract and difficult for young kids to use. I love the idea of focusing on using the words before introducing the symbols. Thanks for sharing this activity.


    The Math Maniacc

    1. My pleasure, Tara! I think the dots help make the abstract symbols a little more representational, thereby helping the kids to make meaning of them.

      1. Thank you! This is great! I switch many years ago to using the correct terms and students have done so much better. I’ve used many of your resources over the years and have seen big improvement in student growth because of these changes.

  3. Hi,

    I used this with my firsties, and they loved it! But I was confused with the signs. It appears that the less than symbol doesn’t have the lines connected to the dots.Am I misunderstanding this? Thank you for your awesome awesome resources!

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