How to Conquer Customary Units of Measurement

Customary units of measurement are tough to teach. But have no fear! With a little scaffolding, your students will master them in no time. First, let kids explore with actual tools, like measuring cups and gallon containers. Second, ask them to estimate. Then use conversion charts to emphasize patterns. After that, kids can solve predictable problems. Follow up with mixed and word problems. Then, finally, they’ll be ready to tackle everyday problems. Scaffold your lesson plans for success!

Ease fourth grade students into customary units of measurement with scaffolding.

Ms. Sneed Dreads Customary Units of Measurement

Our favorite fourth grade teacher closed her eyes and pressed her forehead into the plan book on her desk. “Noooo.”

Just then, her teaching partner, Mr. Frank entered the room. “Hey, what’s up?” he asked.

“Customary units of measurement!” Ms. Sneed exclaimed as her head snapped up.

Mr. Frank’s eyes twinkled with understanding. “No problem,” he said. “Last year, I used scaffolding for my fourth grade math lessons, and the kids did great.”

“Scaffolding?” Somewhere in back of her mind a little bell rang. Hadn’t she heard something about it in her teacher education classes?

“Sure. You remember. In 1976, Wood, Bruner, and Ross coined the term. Teachers provide instructional support to continually lift students to more difficult tasks.”

Ms. Sneed snorted. “How on earth do you remember all this stuff?”

Scaffolding for Customary Units of Measurement

Mr. Frank grinned. “Haha. But seriously, let me tell you how I scaffolded instruction for customary units of measurement.”

As Ms. Sneed grabbed a pencil and piece of paper, her colleague launched into an explanation.

“I found that capacity gave my students the most trouble,” he began. “So I started with concrete experiences, moved to estimating, then had them solve problems with conversion charts. Only then were they ready to use conversions in everyday situations.”

Scaffold instruction when teaching customary units of measurement. Begin with concrete experiences then move to more and more difficult problems.
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Begin with Concrete Experiences

Ms. Sneed nodded, and he continued. “First, I borrowed some measurement tools from the third grade teachers – plastic cups, pints, quarts, and gallons. Then I let them play with water, which they thoroughly enjoyed. What a mess! But it was only water, so it dried.”

“But what did they do with the water?” Ms. Sneed asked.

Mr. Frank grabbed her pencil and made a list:

  1. How many cups in a pint?
  2. How many cups in a quart?
  3. How many cups in a gallon?
  4. How many pints in a quart?
  5. How many pints in a gallon?
  6. How many quarts in a gallon?

“Sure, these concrete activities were a throwback to earlier grades. But they definitely cemented conceptual understanding of customary units of measurement.”

Suddenly, Mr. Frank stood up and headed for the door. “Hold on a minute while I get my measurement files,” he said.

Let Kids Estimate with More Concrete Experiences

Soon, he returned carrying a stack of folders. As Mr. Frank pulled a sheet of paper from one of the folders, he said, “After we finished measuring water – and got dried off – I explained this: Estimation Station.”

Ms. Sneed sat up a little straighter. “What’s that?”

“Every day for a month, a different kid brought something to estimate. Look at this document.” He tapped his finger on the paper. “Each of them was assigned a different unit of measure. See? Inches, feet, cups – even meters and time.”

Ms. Sneed studied the paper. “What happened when the student brought the item to school?”

“They set the item on a side table with a sheet for students’ estimations and a pencil. Everyone knew that they had to guess by 11:00. At that time, the person who brought the item announced the winner. And, of course, they got to pull a prize from my prize box.”

“That sounds like fun,” Ms. Sneed said.

“It was. But more importantly, students were slowly conceptualizing customary units of measurement, as well as metric measures.”

“Careful.” Ms. Sneed winked. “I might actually find that I enjoy teaching measurement.”

Build conceptualization of units of measurement with Estimation Station. Kids love bringing items to school and competing to see who can guess closest.

Determine Which Customary Units of Measurement to Use

“Next,” Mr. Frank continued, “ask kids which units of measurements to use. For example: Would you use milliliters or liters to measure the amount of water in a bathtub?”

“Ooo, yes, my kiddos need this,” his teaching partner said.

“You can also ask them to determine which unit of customary measurement is more accurate. Using the bathtub example again, would the volume be closer to 15 or 150 liters?”

Ms. Sneed nodded her head. “I can see how this would be help kids conceptualize the units. But what about practice?

“I use Common Core Sheets. From there, you can download dozens of worksheets that help students master standard 4.MD.A.1.”

“Thanks so much.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We’re only getting started!”

Use Conversion Tables

Mr. Frank pulled out another paper. “This is a conversion table, or conversion chart,” he said.

“Oh yeah. Kids can use that as a type of crutch,” Ms. Sneed said.

Her co-teacher shook his head. “No, not really. When kids complete these tables, they use patterns. That helps them deepen their conceptual understanding and move slowly to more abstract representations. The CCSS mention use of conversion tables. That makes me believe that they’re pretty powerful.”

Help kids move into customary conversion with these tables. Multiplication and division patterns help them build understanding.

Ease In with Simple, Predictable Problems

As he reached back into the folder, Mr. Frank continued. “After kids fill out the conversion tables, they can solve some simple, predictable problems.” He laid a student sheet on the table.

“For us, it seems easy. But remember, customary units of measurement are new to them.”

Ms. Sneed nodded.

Scaffold kids' understanding of customary units of measurement. Ease in with simple, predictable problems.

Add Word Problems

“As the problems in this customary conversions unit get more difficult, students also encounter some word problems. Scaffolding. Moving slowly to higher levels with support. See?”

Ms. Sneed nodded again.

Move kids from computation to word problems.

Try Some Mixed Measures and Comparisons

“The unit also has more difficult worksheets. This page, for example, asks kids to solve problems involving mixed measures and comparisons. Now they are working at a much higher level of understanding.”

“I see what you mean about scaffolding,” Ms. Sneed said. “Last year, I just taught the pages on customary units of measurement from our math book.” Her shoulders drooped. “I expected them to get it without providing enough support. And, ultimately, the teacher is responsible for student learning.”

“No worries!” Mr. Frank said. “This year will be better.”

As kids get better at customary units of measurement, ask them to solve problems involving mixed measures and comparisons.

Culminate Your Unit with Fun Application

Finally, Mr. Frank pulled a folded booklet from his folder. “Now check this out. My kids had a lot of fun with this last year. This adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk has customary units of measurement problems sprinkled in. It’s a great culminating activity!”

After teaching customary units of measurement, apply concepts with a mathematic story, Jack and the Beanstalk. Fourth and fifth grade students convert and solve problems as they read.

Enjoy Teaching Customary Units of Measurement

Ms. Sneed looked over the materials. Then that famous teacher smile spread across her face. “I can’t wait to teach customary measurement this year!” she said.

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