There is an epidemic in our upper elementary math classes...teachers are not using manipulatives! Many teachers are still stuck to the belief that our children MUST memorize their facts and no longer use hands-on experiences in math. Our students in the upper grades are still children and enjoy learning through manipulatives, play, and interaction with others.
A few weeks ago my 5th grade teachers said they were in need of fraction bars, so I went on a hunt throughout the school to track some down for them. I was amazed and disappointed by the amount of dust on the teachers tubs of manipulatives! I'm sure this is happening in classrooms across the country.
I can assume that manipulatives aren't being used because 1) it takes time to pull them out 2) the students will play and not pay attention 3) teachers don't see the importance of using them in the upper grades and 4) teachers aren't comfortable using the manipulatives. There are solutions to all of these 1) prepare ahead of time 2) set expectations for your students use of the tools 3) understand that children learn by doing and 4) practice with the manipulatives yourself.
Using manipulatives at the beginning of a new concept or skill is vital to many students. They need to experiment with the tools and tasks, along with conceptually see how to perform the algorithm or skill. I still see students in the upper grades struggle with regrouping because they are still in the conceptual learning of the skill and not the abstract, and many upper grades quickly move to the abstract.
Every year I taught 4th grade I always had a handful of students who still struggled with regrouping in addition and/or subtraction. This year I was helping out in a 4th grade classroom and saw the same struggle, a handful of students who were still in the conceptual aspect of regrouping.
I created a small set of task cards for these students, and those in your classroom too, for them to practice and hopefully move over to the abstract level of thinking with this skill. There are eight addition and eight subtraction task cards. Each card has an equation represented by base ten blocks. I also created a record sheet where they read and write the equation in the box and a record sheet where the equation is already written for them. This is so you can use a record sheet that best meets the needs of your students.
I recommend laminating the task cards or placing them in a small photo album (see above) for students to actually write and manipulate the equation. Ideally students would set up the problem with actual base ten blocks. :)
These task cards are great for intervention and for students who are in the RtI process for math.