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HOW-TO VIDEOS: Using Number Lines in Primary Grades Math

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Peyser 10/13/2023
Check out these hands-on tips for using number lines in the primary grades to help your students develop a linear view of numbers and prepare them for upper-level math understanding. 
Student using math manipulatives.

Have you thought about incorporating number lines into your math classroom? It might sound simple, but these versatile tools can make a world of difference in teaching negative numbers, comparing quantities, and subtracting numbers. 

When was the last time you picked up a number line? Perhaps it was when you used a ruler! Personally, I carry paper and pencils with me everywhere I go, ready to draw number lines, area models, and graphs at a moment's notice. You'd be surprised how often I find myself immersed in exciting math discussions—even at the airport, on planes, or in restaurants—where these simple visual aids become indispensable.

As a foundational model for early-elementary and secondary mathematics, the humble number line reigns supreme. When students create a number line, they're laying the groundwork for number sense and a linear understanding of quantities, setting the stage for more advanced math topics like pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and statistics.

So, how can you harness the power of number lines to build this crucial foundation in your primary-grade classroom? Let's dive in with some practical, hands-on tips you can implement tomorrow!

Quantity and Number Lines

There is a connection with quantity and spatial reasoning associated with number lines. In kindergarten, use hundreds charts and number paths to connect linear space with quantity. Here, students begin working with numbers and start developing their grasp of position and linear number sequences. Utilizing tangible objects and manipulatives, encourage your students to count, group, and sort, fostering their understanding of a number path. When students place an object over a box on the number path, they begin to visualize that the quantity occupies the entire space. This connection between quantity and linear space is vital for comprehending number lines.

Liz Peyser showing how to use connecting cubes and a number path.


Traveling on the Number Path

In first grade, deepen students' understanding of quantities by incorporating connecting cubes and a number path. Challenge them to take four cubes and position them over the initial four spaces of a number path. As they progress along the number path, starting at the far-left edge of the "1" box, have them vocalize the quantities aloud while placing each cube. This activity reinforces the concept that they must traverse the entire length of each box to represent the corresponding quantity. Furthermore, students can explore addition and subtraction with movement on the number path.

Liz Peyser pointing to a number path and showing how to start.


Introducing Zero and Equally Spaced Number Lines

Moving to second grade, introduce the concept of zero on the number line. While the number path in kindergarten and first grade excludes a box for zero (as it implies zero has a quantity), a pivotal transition occurs in second grade when students formally encounter the number line. Explain to your students that the far-left edge of the "1" box serves as the starting point for zero.

Moreover, use connecting cubes to help young learners construct equally spaced number lines. Task students with arranging connecting cubes on a sheet of paper, drawing a line underneath, and utilizing the cube edges as tick marks to denote the boundaries of each space. Begin by placing a tick mark labeled "0" at the far-left end of the cube train. Then, continue by placing the next tick mark labeled "1" at the seam with the next cube. By connecting the number path spaces with the spaces between tick marks, students start to comprehend that "0" to "1" constitutes a single whole space, and so on.

Liz Peyser.


Utilizing Number Lines for Fraction Concepts

As students progress to third grade and beyond, introduce fractions using the number line. Encourage them to mark where the whole number begins and ends and to divide that whole into equal parts. Start by employing the whole number represented by "0" and "1" on the number line, and mark it with tick marks. Then partition the whole into thirds or fourths, depending on the lesson. As students travel from zero and advance one fraction-sized piece of space (e.g., 1/4), they land on the tick mark corresponding to "one-fourth." 

Liz Peyser.


These hands-on teaching techniques in the primary grades will not only solidify your students' understanding of number lines but also establish the foundation for more advanced math concepts such as understanding negative numbers, fraction computation, graphing on coordinate planes, and understanding ratios and proportions. And remember, it all leads to linear algebra—which, as the name suggests, is all about lines. Get ready to empower your students with the magic of number lines, and watch their math skills soar!

Interested in delving deeper into the development of number lines? Consider reading "Linking Number Sense to Linear Space" by Elizabeth Peyser and Jessica Babo in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Journal, Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK–12.