Home > News and views > View all

Manipulatives in modern mathematics

Published: Aug 18, 2014 3 min read

Rachel Jackson

Primary Specialist

National STEM Learning Centre

Who likes mathematics? I do!

I never used to as a child. No matter how hard I tried to carry out the list of multiplication and division calculations on the board I always seemed to get the answer wrong. I was puzzled. I had followed each step my teacher told me, so surely I must be correct?

Through sheer determination and a lot of hard work I achieved a good mathematics GCSE, but how I wish that I had a deeper understanding of mathematics as a child, instead of just learning a procedure because this is what I was told to do.

Teaching mathematics at primary level has opened my eyes as to how number works and has given me a real sense for working with them. I now spot easy ways for adding numbers together: partitioning and recombining, adding near tens and adjusting; even jumping along imaginary number lines in my head. I find it easier to work out which food offers are the best value for money in supermarkets, and we all know how confusing they can be.

It pleases me when I see children engaging happily at an early age with numbers, rather than following set procedures because they work. I wonder if one of the reasons for this is due to the host of manipulatives used to represent number and provide concrete representations on which children can then build the foundations of mathematics.

Recently I attended a workshop at the primary mathematics conference, held at the National STEM Centre, in which manipulatives help children to develop a deeper understanding of place value and all its properties. We bundled straws into groups of 10’s using them to help add and take away two digit numbers, took our fingers for a walk down a Gattegno chart, scrabbled for Dienes blocks, set out arrow cards and arranged place value counters to represent multiplication. The place value counters in particular really helped to show how to carry tens over to the next column. If only I had been taught this way, misconceptions could have been spotted and errors self-corrected, providing a sense of achievement and confidence in mathematics.

The use of manipulatives is not a new idea but sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of how, when used effectively, they can be an extremely useful tool, bridging from a concrete to a more abstract understanding of mathematics.

Do you feel that you are better mathematicians from teaching primary mathematics? How do you use manipulatives in your school? Do you have a set policy for their use? Are there any aspects of mathematics you have found really benefit from using manipulatives? Please reply to the maths thread in the primary resources group.

I've created a list of activity ideas and further information about using manipulatives in mathematics.