Let’s look at some ideas for teaching measurement in fourth grade. First, provide concrete experiences. Second, let kids estimate. Third, measure. Finally, provide supported activities for converting units.
Ms. Sneed Dreads Teaching Measurement
“I don’t even want to teach measurement,” Ms. Sneed told her mentor.
“I know the feeling,” Mrs. Brown replied. “Who wants to begin that awful chapter in the fourth grade math book? It’s filled with page after page of daunting material. Customary measurement. Metric measurement. Ugh.
“To make it easier (and more fun), try teaching measurement every day. Here are a few ideas to get you started.”
Lead with Concrete Experiences
About How Big Is a…?
Mrs. Brown held her hand over the table and bent her pointer finger. “First, you can ask students to find everyday items that are about as big as the units of measurement you’re studying. Did you know, for example, the length of the middle section of your pointer finger is about one inch?” Then Mrs. Brown held up her little finger. “And the width of your pinkie is about one centimeter.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” said Ms. Sneed. “But I can see how those types of examples build readiness.”
Next, Mrs. Brown walked over to her base-10 blocks. “A cubic centimeter is an absolutely essential tool for teaching measurement – in math or science.” She held up the smallest cube in the kit. “I wish I had a dollar for every time I stood up in front of my class, held up this tiny cube of plastic, and said, ‘If this cubic centimeter were made of water, its volume would be one milliliter and its mass would be one gram.’ Invaluable!”
Ms. Sneed’s eyes widened. Wow, she hadn’t known that either. Mrs. Brown was really giving her a lesson!
Balance Scales and Graduated Cylinders
“Dust off your tools and let your students use them for science experiments,” Mrs. Brown continued. “Even the simplest experiments will help kids conceptualize the size of grams and milliliters. For example, have students measure 100 milliliters of water and pour it into a shallow container. The next day, have them measure the water again to see how much has evaporated.”
“But I don’t have balance scales or graduated cylinders in my classroom,” Ms. Sneed said.
“No worries,” the mentor said with a smile. “In every school, these measurement tools sit in boxes – unused. Tomorrow I’ll send an email to the staff asking for them. Magically, they’ll appear in your room.”
Continue Teaching Measurement with Estimation
Now Mrs. Brown looked at her mentee intently. “Sometimes we teachers need to forget about the math book – and concentrate on building conceptual understanding. In other words, we need to meet our students where they are – and carefully scaffold. It’s essential when teaching measurement in fourth grade.”
As her mentor walked to a table at the back of the room, Ms. Sneed followed. Pointing to a cylindrical lid, she explained. “Currently, kids in my class estimate the size of one object per day. Instead of setting this up myself, I let the kids do it. Each child is assigned a date and a unit of measurement. They bring in an object, and the others compete for the closest answer. We call it Estimation Station.”
“Do you give prizes?” Ms. Sneed asked.
“Of course. My prize box is full of coupons and repurposed junk that kids love. While I think of it as important conceptualization, they just think of it as fun and games,” she said with a little giggle.
Continue Teaching Measurement with Opportunities to Measure
Next, Mrs. Brown walked to her desk. She pulled out a ruler, a pencil, and a roll of adding machine tape. “Come to the side table with me, and we’ll talk about actual measuring,” she said.
Frontload Fractions with Customary Length
After they sat down, Mrs. Brown tore off a strip of adding machine tape. “You know what I like to say: carpe diem. Seize the day. When you start teaching measurement of inches, consider how you’ll also use it as an opportunity to work on fractions. Today, I’ll teach you like you are my student.”
Teach Fractions with a Simple Strip of Paper
Mrs. Brown folded the strip of paper in half. Then she unfolded it. “Halves. See?” She picked up the pencil and wrote 1/2 on the fold mark.
After folding it back to halves, she again folded it in half. “Half of a half is a…”
“Quarter, or fourth,” Ms. Sneed responded.
“Right.” The mentor wrote 1/4, 2/4, and 3/4 on the three fold marks. Then she pointed to the center fold. “One-half equals…”
“One-fourth,” Ms. Sneed replied.
Again, Mrs. Brown folded the strip of paper into fourths. And again, she folded in half. “Half of a fourth is…”
Mrs. Brown smiled. “You’re a good student.” Then she wrote 1/8, 2/8, 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, and 7/8 on the fold marks.”
Soon, the pair had established that 2/8 = 1/4, 4/8 = 2/4 = 1/2, and 6/8 = 3/4. Additionally, they discussed the edges, 0 (AKA 0/8, 0/4, and 0/2) and 1 (or 8/8, 4/4, and 2/2).
Ms. Sneed shook her head in amazement. “What a great little lesson! I’ll definitely steal this idea for my classroom. Obviously, it will help them understand. Also, they can store the fraction strip for later use.”
Apply What They’ve Learned to a Ruler
Now Mrs. Brow positioned the ruler in front of them – inches side up. “Unfortunately, most rulers display sixteenths. However, we only go to eighths. So the next part of teaching measurement of inches involves ignoring the smallest hash marks on an inch ruler.”
Mrs. Brown’s eyes twinkled. “But fortunately, we can use technology to our advantage. At this point, kids will break out their Chromebooks. Then they can play the Ruler Game until they’ve mastered the skill.”
The mentor opened her laptop, found the game, and showed its features to Ms. Sneed. “As you can see, kids can choose to measure in wholes, halves, quarters, eighths, or sixteenths. Of course, most of our kids should work with eighths. However, if they’re having trouble, they can begin with fourths. They can also set the timer for a longer time to think.”
“Wow,” Ms. Sneed said, “I love this.”
“Me too! With this app, my kids master measuring to the nearest eighth of an inch in no time.”
Let Kids Measure Customary Capacity and Weight Too
Mrs. Brown sat back in her chair and sighed. “Actually, we don’t have many opportunities to measure customary capacity or weight. In science, we always use metric measures. Therefore, we need to manufacture opportunities. For example, in October, you could have kids estimate the circumference, weight, and capacity of a pumpkin. Then they could actually measure it.
“Another fun activity might be to compare the capacity of a quart of snow and the water after it’s melted.”
Ms. Sneed nodded. “I get it. Carpe diem.”
Introduce Decimals with Metric Length
Now Mrs. Brown flipped the ruler over to centimeters. “Metric length let us introduce decimals. Kids learn that a millimeter is one-tenth, or 0.1, of a centimeter. Additionally, they can write 23 millimeters as 2.3 centimeters.”
“What an easy introduction,” Ms. Sneed said. “Do you suggest using a ruler to practice measuring?”
“That would work. However, the Ruler Game is also available for metric length.”
Choose Science Experiments with Opportunities to Measure Volume and Mass
Mrs. Brown moved to a chair farther down the table. In front of her, Ms. Sneed noticed a plate of shriveled apples.
“Whenever possible, select science labs that require metric measurement,” the mentor said.
“For example, this apple lab asks kids to mass a whole, peeled, and sliced apple every day for one week. In this activity, kids use a balance scale three times each day. It’s awesome.
“We also do a gummy bear lab. It requires them to measure the volumes of different liquids with a graduated cylinder.”
Seize the Moment
“When teaching measurement for fourth grade students,” Mrs. Brown continued, “get in the habit of challenging them. For example, ask, ‘What’s the perimeter of this bulletin board?’ Then have them measure it to find out. Next, ask, ‘If we had 37 feet of trim, how much would we have to cut off in order to get it to fit around this bulletin board?’ Ramp up the difficulty as you go along!
“Seriously,” her mentor went on, “measurement is just one of those things you need to weave into your everyday teaching experiences. All. The. Time. Don’t think of it as a one-and-done unit.”
Teaching Measurement in Fourth Grade Includes Conversions
“What about conversions?” Ms. Sneed asked. “Yesterday I asked my students to convert inches to feet. It was absolutely awful! They didn’t know whether to multiply or divide. Additionally, they couldn’t divide by 12.”
“Kids have so much trouble converting!” Mrs. Brown agreed. “But our fourth grade standard says that they can use conversion tables.”
She pulled up a page on her laptop. “Like this. See?”
Ms. Sneed studied it. “You mean they fill it in and then use it?”
“Right! They can use repeat addition to fill in the table. That way, kids see the patterns and get the support they need. This page came from this customary conversion unit.” Returning to her laptop, she found the preview and scrolled through it.
“I definitely need that!” laughed Ms. Sneed.
Applying and Extending Measurement Concepts
Mrs. Brown clicked to another file on her laptop. “Once kids have a steady grasp on measurement concepts, they can apply and extend it. For example, this version of Jack and the Beanstalk asks them to solve problems as they read.”
“When you keep your eyes open, you’ll find lots of opportunities. For example, I have a Pi Day activity that asks kids to measure circumference and diameter of circular objects around the classroom. After dividing, they find the magic number: 3.14.”
Enjoy Teaching Measurement for Fourth Grade
Ms. Sneed looked at the notes she had jotted down during the meeting with her mentor. “I take back what I said earlier,” she said. “Mrs. Brown, I no longer dread it. Teaching measurement for my fourth grade students is going to be a blast!”