How to Read Big Numbers: A Powerful Little Trick [VIDEO]

Learning how to read big numbers is exciting and scary for kids.

It’s scary because they have to say the number out loud, and that means they might mess up in front of their parents or friends. It feeds that “I’m bad at math” label we so want to avoid for our girl.

But it’s also exciting, because kids LOVE the idea of really big numbers. Reading a giganto number makes her feel hecka cool, and even saying the word “million” sends a tingly little thrill up her spine!

It’s also a really fun skill to teach, because it’s SO easy to explain and even younger kids can catch on quickly. If only every math skill were this easy!

I’ll explain the trick in a minute, but first let’s take a quick look at WHY your child struggles with reading big numbers in the first place.

Why reading big numbers is so hard for kids

When your child learns how to read big numbers, the skill she’s really grappling with is place value.

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 on the “hundreds” spot in a number, just as the 4 sits on the “tens” spot and means 40 jellybeans. A digit’s place in a number determines its value–hence the term place value.

jar of jellybeans with yellow background; big number of colorful jellybeans

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.

In school, kids often learn place value with a chart that looks something like this:

place value chart with place value names for reading big numbers

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.

If your child is using this technique to read numbers, you are going to LOVE the trick I’ll share with you, but first we need to address the problem of commas.

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 right way to insert commas in a number, and the common mistake kids make

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 she has that skill nailed down, you can teach The Trick for reading big numbers in a flash.

How to read big numbers (a 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 BACK and moving toward the front of the number, the first comma you see is named “thousand”. The second comma is named “million”.

That literally is all you have to remember, unless you want to get really fancy and learn the third comma: “billion”.

naming the commas when learning how to read big numbers

Take a moment before reading a large number to notice how many commas there are, and name the commas.

STEP 2: Read the numbers between the commas. For example, in the number 82,456,201 you would read, “eighty-two”, “four hundred fifty-six”, “two hundred and one”.

STEP 3: Say the number: read the numbers AND name the commas. “Eighty-two (point to comma) MILLION, four hundred fifty-six (point to comma) THOUSAND, two hundred and one.”

I like to point to each section as she reads it, then make a big deal of pointing to each comma as we say its name together.

That’s really all there is to it

Honestly, she’ll be reading big numbers like a pro in mere minutes with this trick! To sum up, there are three things your child needs to know as she learns how to read big numbers:

  1. Starting at the BACK of a number, insert a comma after every three digits.
  2. Learn the names of the commas. Again starting at the back of the number, the comma names in order are “thousand”, “million”, and “billion”.
  3. Read the numbers in between the commas. Each time you get to a comma, say its name.

Like any new skill, your child will need lots of practice in the beginning or she’ll default back to the old way. I recommend playing a few games of Numbaroll to make the new skills automatic.

Even better, you can skip the formal lesson entirely and jump right in to playing Numbaroll, and teach these skills as you play the game.

five cards make a 5-digit number in the game Numbaroll, a card game for place value and reading big numbers

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