Effectively Teaching Customary Units of Measurement with Scaffolding

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 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 in my lesson plans, 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

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

“I found that customary 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 customary conversions in everyday situations.”

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

Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this pose.

Begin with Concrete Experiences

Ms. Sneed nodded, and he continued. “First, I borrowed some measurement tools from the third grade teachers – 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?

“Although this concrete activity was a throwback to earlier grades, it definitely cemented their conceptual understanding.”

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.”

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

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 a bunch of units of measurement.”

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

Determine Which Units to Use

Mr. Frank moved over to the computer and opened Common Core Sheets. “Check out this sheet,” he said.

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

“And this.” The two looked at word problems that asked kids to determine which measure was more accurate.

“Here, I’ll bookmark this page for you,” said Mr. Frank. “From here, you can download dozens of worksheets that help students master 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 Common Core State Standards 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.

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

“For us, it seems easy. But remember, it’s new to them.”

Ms. Sneed nodded.

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.”

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

“I see what you mean about scaffolding,” Ms. Sneed said. “Last year, I just taught the pages 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.”

Culminate Your Unit with Fun Application

He 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 measurement problems sprinkled in. It’s a great culminating activity!”

Culminate your unit on customary units of measurement with this math adventure book.

That famous teacher smile spread across Ms. Sneed’s face. “I can’t wait to teach customary units of measurement,” she said.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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