Parents often ask me to help their children with math homework. My reply is always the same. I am not interested in “helping” with homework. I am very interested in addressing the gaps and misconceptions that give children difficulty with their homework in the first place. Chief among these is a pervasive lack of understanding about place value.

Children's understanding is generally limited to identifying the place value of a given digit or inserting a digit in a given place. I do not blame the children. Most curriculum asks them to do nothing else. Replacing the terms “borrowing” and “carrying” with terms like “exchanging” or “regrouping” represented a tremendous improvement in math education. Even though many elementary math teachers these days play trading games, and the kids appear to know what they are doing, every junior high or high school math teacher has observed that they do not profoundly understand place value, so crucial to understanding the quadratic equation, bases other than base ten, and other topics.

Therefore, I usually start my homework help by first playing simple trading games with the student. The problems I use for the games are ones I know students can calculate correctly, such as 48 + 17. Maybe they can even do it in their heads. No matter.

The first thing I do is dispense with the usual place value names. I use “loose ones” and “packages of ten.” Loose ones is a better term than simply ones. The ones are ones precisely because they are not in a group. They are loose. Children often do not realize that the loose ones' place is fundamentally different from all the other places. Thus they often have trouble with the ones' place in other bases. For example, teachers tell students that when they are working in, say, base five, the largest possible digit in the ones' place is a 4 because “there is a rule that the one's place can be no larger than one less than the base.” Although it is true that the ones' place can be no larger than one less than the base, it is not because of a rule. The reason is much more fundamental than a mere rule. Understanding the ones' place as “loose ones” is key to discovering that fundamental principle.

After we play the trading game for a little while, I have the student do a simple addition problem. When students calculate a problem like 18 + 25, they put a 3 in the ones' place and a 1 above the 1 of 18. Then they add 1 + 1 + 2 and write a 4 in the tens' place, resulting in the answer of 43. Then I ask, “How did you get that answer?”

They usually reply, “I put a 3 in the ones' place and a 1 above the 1 of 18. Then I add 1 + 1 + 2 and write a 4 in the tens' place, so my answer is 43.”

That's fine. Of course they answer in a mechanical, non-mathematical way. They have heard teachers repeatedly explain addition problems to them in much the same way. Then I ask, “Yes, but why did you do that?”

Students invariably reply, “Because that is how the teacher told me to do it.”

Then I ask, “Yes, but why did the teacher tell you to do it that way? Why does it work?” Now they are stymied.

So I show them how to “prove” (not really prove, more like demonstrate) the answer using a picture (similar to this one, but simpler).

I show them how to draw the picture and talk their way through it. “See, you have 15 loose ones. That is enough to make a package of ten. So you gather up a package a ten and put it with all the other packages of ten. You still have 5 loose ones left. Because 5 is not enough to make a package, you leave them loose and show them in the loose ones' column. You add up the packages of ten and put that total in the packages of ten column.”I have them illustrate several problems by drawing the picture.

Very often students realize for the first time that **place value is all about making groups of ten. Subtraction is all about breaking groups of ten into loose ones and dumping them with the other loose ones. Every place except the loose ones is a group of ten something. Teachers tell students that each succeeding place is larger by a magnitude of ten, but somehow children fail to grasp the significance of this fact. The reason the standard addition algorithm works is because you are gathering up groups of ten at every place. Likewise, the reason the standard subtraction algorithm works is because you are breaking a group of ten at every place.**

Instead of the usual place value mat, I like to use a mat that labels the places a little differently. I start with the loose ones, then packages of 10 loose ones, then cartons of 10 packages, then boxes of 10 cartons, then cases of 10 boxes, then pallets of 10 cases, and so on. I usually stop at cargo ship with 10 shipping containers. Kids love it. Even second graders can easily calculate a multi-digit addition or subtraction problem. In fact, after kids master place value as groups of 10, they often ask me to set them problems with any number of digits. I usually refrain from a problem with more than 13 or 14 digits because even though the kids find the problem easy, they also find it tedious and time-consuming. But hey, tedious and time-consuming is a whole sight better than hard when it comes to doing homework.