Category Archives: number

Zoomable Number Line

This little gadget on is so illuminating for teaching decimals. I always get a positive response from students when I show it.


I think it can be used it in a number of ways:

  1. Predict what happens when I zoom in. As you zoom in, first the tick marks appear and then at the next level of zoom, numbers start appearing.  It’s a great way of “bridging” from the familiar to the new.  A number line is likely to be a familiar concept.  However, what is “in between” 0 and 1? An intentionally ambiguous question. Students are likely to say “half” or 0.5.  How else can we show half? What other numbers are in between 0 and 1?
  2. Why are there 10 ticks between 0 and 1? We have divided 1 into 10 equal parts, what is each part.  How else can we represent 1/10?


From there we “zoom” into the next level of hundredths


This table might be useful as some practice to relate fractions to decimals.  I would love to hear some comments on this.






Bus Stop Division

Here’s a big number:


Try different single-digit divisors.  No remainders.

This is an example of purposeful practice – exposing the wonder of mathematics whilst providing a reason to practise lots of  of bus stop division.

You might want to start by asking pupils to come up with their own dividend “in the tens of millions” and try different divisors. (Here for a quick primer on the mathematical language.) Inevitably they will end up with remainders, which they may or may not carry into decimal places. Then let show them this “magic” number.

Questions to ask:

  • What divisors does this work for and why? (Purposeful practice)
  • What other dividends could I make like this? (Purposeful practice + reasoning)
  • What smaller dividends could I make like this? (reasoning)
  • What is the smallest dividend I could make that all numbers 1-9 will divide into without remainders? (reasoning)

Whilst I would want everyone in the class to understand the reasoning through a whole-class discussion, you may have some learners who need the practice on bus stop long division and spend most of their time doing this. Those that are confident with this technique can spend their time exploring deeper into the structure of the number.

Whilst we are on the subject of “Bus Stop”, maybe this technique actually has nothing to do with standing in line waiting for a bus:


No 2 in a series of posts based on Thinking Mathematically (1985) by Mason, Burton, Stacey

This is the sort of exercise I can envisage taking a number of different paths depending on what my students do with it which is exciting. The book walks through a generalisation by looking for the lowest 4-digit palindromic number, 1001 and then noting that subsequent palindromic numbers can be found by adding 110. Since 1001 and 110 are multiples of 11, then all numbers in this series are multiples of 11. However, this series misses out other palindromic numbers, e.g. 7557 so we need to refine it further.

I am intrigued to see if this is indeed a path my students would follow or if we would discover something else in these numbers. Depending on the class, I might start by asking “how many 4 digit palindromic numbers are there?”  Before getting into the general, I would see this as an opportunity for purposeful practice of long division if that was something that my students require.  Some students might need a fair amount of direction to reach a proof, but I would aim to make sure that all students left this lesson with an appreciation of that proof even if I had to lead them through it.


Place value game

I often play this simple game with younger pupils to help them build a stronger understanding of place value. It’s simple and requires no resources.

Start off by drawing a place value chart on the board.  Depending on where you are at, you could do just hundreds, tens, ones or you could include digits either side of the decimal point, e.g. tens, ones, tenths and hundredths.  Use this as an opportunity to target questions at students as you are drawing the table “if we are doing place value, which column is this?”

Each group then has a row on the place value chart.  You want to limit it to about 6-7 groups otherwise it takes too long to get round to your go again.  It works really well with small classes working in pairs or threes.

Then we start randomly generating digits.  You could just use a dice (it doesn’t matter if you only have digits up to six), or using something like this from

Dec-21-2016 14-33-14.gif

There are a couple of twists that I have added to this over the years.

1, You don’t just get to place the digits in your own row, you can also place them in someone else’s row. So if you get a low digit, you can scupper someone else’s chances by putting it in their thousands column. This depends very much on the culture within the classroom. If you think there might be existing friendship issues amongst the group then it may be best to avoid this twist.

2, You could add some extra options as shown above, e.g. multiply or divide by ten.  This can make it a bit more interesting.  Other options might be to be able to erase a digit.

It’s good fun, but to get the most out of it, it is good to discuss at various stages who will definitely have the highest number / lowest number, etc.  You don’t always need to fill the grid completely to determine the order of the numbers. Why is this?

If you have used this or have any ideas for other “twists”, please drop me a line in the comments.

Sofia’s Ribbons

I’m not sure who Sofia is or where this originated, but it was presented by Liz Henning at the recent MTN hosted by La Salle Education in London and it struck me as a great way to introduce bar modelling at all levels, and could really help with ratio and fractions.

Start with 2 equal strips of paper, “ribbons”. Ask questions like:

  • If each ribbon cost 10p how much do they cost altogether?
  • If both ribbons together weigh 6g, how much does one weigh?
  • If both ribbons represent one hour, how much time is one ribbon?
  • etc.

Representation is a key concept here.  The ribbons can represent something else but that representation can be useful to work things out.  It also uses the idea of part-part-whole.

Next, take one of the ribbons and fold it in half.  Tear along the fold, so you have this:


Now you can ask questions like:

  • If the orange ribbon is 10p, how much is the white ribbon?
  • If the ribbons weigh 15g overall, how much does the orange one weigh?
  • What fraction of this is the total?
  • If white represents 12 hours how much does orange represent?
  • What is the ratio of orange to white?

Next, take the orange ribbon and fold it in half again, so you have this:


Now ask:

  • If orange is now worth 10p, how much is white?
  • If both represent 2½ hours, how much does white represent?

and from here you can get into drawing bar model to represent what is going, e.g.

Capture.PNG  capture

I used the bar modelling tool Thinking Blocks to create these images. Once you get used to the interface, it is a quick way of creating bar models for use in the classroom and contains a number of problems that you can use with learners.



Do you really understand addition and subtraction?

This was the question Mark McCourt was getting us to ponder in the first session of Maths Teacher Network.  He started off by running through the classic 1089 “trick” which I have written about before here.


These types of activity are such a powerful way to get students to carry out repeated practice to build fluency. If you handed out a sheet with 20 column subtractions and 20 column additions, you would get groans and do no favours for the general popularity of maths as a subject.  If those repeated calculations have a purpose as they do here, the dynamic and energy in the classroom is completely different.

I’d used this before but had never given it the time that it deserves, nor had I extended it:

  • Try it with 4 digits, 5 digits, etc.
  • Go back to three digits and try it with a, b, c. In other words prove it algebraically.
  • Now try in a different base, e.g. Base 7!

I actually got a bit obsessed with this when I got home.  I do love a good spreadsheet challenge, so I attempted to build something that would provide an algebraic proof of different numbers of digits and bases. Here is the result…


My reflection from this session was that even if I have “seen” something before, have I really investigated it deeply and could I use it more effectively with my classes? To which my answers were no and yes!