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I've found that the rods and cubes on a place value mat work great for most kids. However, my struggling students do better with connecting cubes. They don't have to remember to take a rod off and count ten cubes in its place. They can literally "break apart" a ten. I also use a dry erase mat that they can write the value of the tens and ones right underneath the manipulatives. Then you can add a + symbol between the 10's and 1's to show expanded form.
I love the dry erase idea! Thank you Brigette!!
I also prefer unifix cubes for struggling students. It is important that they can break them apart first. With base ten blocks, they have to trade, not break and that involves "trusting the ten" which is challenging.
To use unifix cubes, students can make some "towers of 10" to use as tens and have some loose ones. I've also used the two column tens/ones place value mat like Brigette, but prefer one with a ten frame on the ones' side. Here's a free one so you can what I mean. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Place-Value-Mat-1321552
Two-color counters and ten frame mats also work. The student would build 26, for example, by filling 2 ten frames completely and then have 6 in the last ten frame. Here, they can see both "the ten" and "ten ones" clearly.
Use ten frames!
This video is indispensable:
Rods and cubes are just too abstract for struggling students/ The problem with sticks and even connecting cubes is that, once kids have made the rod, it becomes a big fat 1 instead of a group of 10.
Ten frames are great because struggling students can see the QUANTITY all the time, even when a group of 10 is complete. They do not have to count and recount.
ALSO, for numbers less then 10, they can always see the "make a ten" complement in the empty boxes, which gives a depth of understanding you just don't get with rods and cubes.
In fact, I don't even bother with rods and cubes in first grade. We just use 10 frames throughout; and by second grade, the struggling kids understand tens and ones better than the rest of the class.
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