Billion place value is exciting and also a little intimidating for kids.
Kids LOVE the idea of big numbers. Reading a really large number out loud, saying the word “million” or “billion”, just feels cool.
In this article, I’ll share my super-quick trick that makes reading big numbers easy for kids. I’ll also teach you an awesome game for reinforcing this skill.
- What is place value?
- Why reading big numbers is so hard for kids
- How to write commas in numbers
- How to read big numbers (Kelli’s quick trick)
- Play this game to practice reading big numbers
What is Place Value?
As a little background, we use a numeration system that has 10 digits (0-9). The value of a digit changes depending on where it sits in a number.
For example, the digit “five” can be worth 5, 50, 500, and so on.
Place value is best explained with an example. Let’s say you have 246 jellybeans. You write the number 246: a 2, a 4, and a 6. Except the 2 doesn’t represent 2 jellybeans, it’s 200 jellybeans. Why?
The number 2 sits in the hundreds place in a number, just as the 4 sits on the tens place for 40 jellybeans, and the 6 in the ones place means 6 jellybeans.
A digit’s place in a number determines its value–hence the term place value.
All that to say, the whole business of reading numbers is not quite as straightforward as it looks at first glance, and the bigger the number, the trickier it gets.
It takes years for a child to make sense of our place value number system.
As early as 3rd or 4th grade, kids start to work with numbers in the thousands, ten thousands, hundred thousands, millions, and beyond.
Suddenly your child is talking about the “hundred-thousands place” or even “hundred-billion places”. These larger numbers can get confusing really quickly.
When the numbers get too big, many kids just guess. They might randomly blurt out numbers like “a thousand hundred”, with no idea how to figure out the actual number.
Why reading big numbers is so hard for kids
In school, kids often use a place-value chart that looks something like this:
I remember as a kid trying hard to memorize the word in each space, then trying to mentally match them up with each digit as I read a number out loud.
I was fumbly and slow, and never quite sure if I was remembering them right.
The place value chart is an important tool for understanding place value groups, and how our number system works, but it is NOT helpful for learning to read big numbers.
There’s a much easier way.
There are just two things your child needs to know before learning to read and write numbers up to a billion place value:
- They should be able to read a 3-digit number like 458.
- They should know the correct way to write commas in numbers.
Since I see a lot of children confused about commas, let’s quickly address that before I show you the “how to read big numbers trick”.
How to Write Commas In Numbers
Commas are the single biggest challenge for kids learning how to read and write big numbers. It’s totally counterintuitive to start at the BACK of the number when inserting commas, and every kid I’ve ever met gets confused by this.
The number one thing to watch for when your teaching your child how to read big numbers is how they insert commas in a number.
Once your child has that skill nailed down, you can teach this trick for reading big numbers in a flash.
How to read big numbers (Kelli’s quick trick)
If your child can easily read a number like 457, she’ll have no trouble reading very big numbers.
STEP 1: Name the commas
Starting at the end of the number and moving from right to left (the opposite of reading), say the names of the commas:
- The first comma is named “thousand”
- The second comma is named “million”
- The third comma (which is rare) is named “billion”
That is literally all you have to remember. The names of those three commas, in order.
Have your child take a moment before reading any large number to notice how many commas there are, and say the name of the commas.
STEP 2: Read each group of numbers between the commas
Within each of the place value groups is, at most, a 3-digit number in the hundreds.
Without worrying about the commas at this stage, have your child read each of these numbers.
For example, in the number 82,456,201 your child would read, “eighty-two”, “four hundred fifty-six”, “two hundred and one”.
STEP 3: Say the number
Now you put it all together, reading the numbers AND naming the commas.
“Three hundred forty-five (point to comma) MILLION, seven hundred ninety-six (point to comma) THOUSAND, five hundred two.”
I like to point to each section as the child reads it, then make a big deal of pointing to each comma as we say its name together.
After you’ve done this a few times, your child will be good to go on their own.
The Best Game for Reading Big Numbers (Up To Billion Place Value)
Imagine you and your child are playing a card game together.
She turns over her last card, throws her hands dramatically in the air and yells:
“Three MILLION, four hundred fifty-six THOUSAND, two hundred twenty-nine! Hey mom… I just won THREE MILLION points!”
She feels like she’s just won the lottery! 😆
Numbaroll is an easy-to-play card game that helps your child get really good at reading AND writing numbers into a billion place value.
Here’s how to play.
How to Play the Numbaroll Place Value Game
- AGES: 7-11 years
- PLAYERS: 2-3
- MATERIALS: a deck of playing cards, 1 or 2 dice
Remove the 10s and face cards from the deck (jacks, queens, and kings). Leave in the aces; they are worth 1.
Shuffle the cards and place the pile face down. Now you are ready to play.
1. Roll one die. (For later games as kids progress, play with two dice.)
2. Take that many cards from the top of the deck. (If you roll a 5, take 5 cards.)
NOTE: If you roll a one, take one card, then roll again. Add more cards on your second roll. For example, if you roll a 1 then a 6, you would make a number with 7 digits.
3. Lay out your cards in a row to make a number. Use the die to make a comma.
4. Read your score out loud to the other player. “Ninety-two thousand, three hundred seventy-five.”
5. The other player writes your score as you read it out loud to them. Then they read it back to you, to make sure they got it right.
6. Next, the other player rolls for their cards. Continue playing until each player has had five turns.
Tips to Get the Most from This Game
1. With younger kids, don’t worry about adding up all the scores at the end. That’s a separate skill, and a challenging one. If they do want to find the total, use a calculator.
2. If you have more advanced kids who do want to add up the totals at the end, either print out the Numbaroll score sheet or use graph paper and draw a vertical to show where each number will end. This will help kids line them up correctly.
NOTE: It’s hard to write a large number in the grid correctly the first time. I recommend initially writing the numbers on a plain piece of paper, then transferring them to one of these grid score sheets at the end.
…and an example of setting up your own score sheet on graph paper.
3. Playing with two dice is a lot harder…but also a lot more fun! A player could conceivably make a number with hundred billion place value. It’s definitely a challenge, but kids LOVE the big numbers.
Final Thoughts: Reading Numbers with Billion Place Value
It’s worth mentioning that knowing how to read large numbers is NOT the same as having a deep understanding of billion place value.
They are separate skills.
Reading and writing numbers accurately is very important, and kids can learn it quickly. This is a big confidence booster–especially since reading numbers out loud, especially in front of peers, can feel pretty intimidating.
Teach the skill of reading big numbers early on, and it will give your child a foundation for delving deeper into place value, while helping them feel successful right away.