Using Manipulatives in the Middle School Math Classroom

Instructor: Shannon Orr
You could walk 30 miles, but wouldn't driving a car be easier? Using manipulatives for math instruction is like using a car to get somewhere faster. This lesson will define manipulatives and describe how to use them in the middle school math classroom.

Use What You Have

Imagine that you are trying to climb a 10-foot fence. There are several people around you trying to perform the same task. Only one or two of them have managed to make their way to the top, but most are still struggling near the bottom. Near the corner of the fence you see the materials to make a ladder, so you assemble the ladder and begin using it to climb quickly to the top of the fence. Some of the other climbers are upset because they think you're taking the easy way out, while others are upset because they didn't think of it first or can't figure out how to make their own ladder. Using manipulatives in the classroom follows the same pattern. Some people discourage it, while others just don't know how to use them to their benefit. Let's see how you can use these clever tools to make learning math easier for middle grade students.

You're Never Too Old

Manipulatives are objects that can be used to solve mathematical problems. These include, but are not limited to, blocks, sorting tools, abacuses, and objects of different geometric shapes. When people begin discussing the use of manipulatives, they often describe them as something that should be used with students who are first beginning to learn math. Some people feel that by the time students reach middle school they should be able to complete their math lessons without the use of manipulatives. One could ask these people: When do we outgrow using the dictionary? The answer, of course, is never.

As students enter middle school, their math lessons don't remain the same. They are constantly learning new techniques and formulas, and should be encouraged to use every resource available to them to assist them in learning. Manipulatives, like a dictionary, can be used to check whether the answer the student has solved for is correct. Some students are not as academically strong as others, so the use of manipulatives helps level the playing field and enables slower learners to keep up with their classmates. For other students, using manipulatives simply helps illustrate the lessons for a clearer understanding. Whatever the reason, if the tools are available students should be allowed to use them.

Benefits and Limitations

There are several benefits to using manipulatives in middle school. For one thing, students can often use the same type of manipulative to practice different skills. Blocks can help students understand base ten, place value, and order of operation. Geometric shapes can help students learn to identify the shapes as well as assist them in understanding lines, angles, and degrees. Even dice can be used to help students who struggle with addition and subtraction, or who may need help with multiplication. The tools can be purchased or made based on the needs of the student. Since manipulatives are not given during testing, students can draw them on the paper provided for most standardized tests and make use of them that way.

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