Greater Than, Less Than, or Equal: Learning to Compare Numbers

What Kids Need to Learn

Less Than Sign These problems require kids to compare two numbers and say whether they are greater than, less than, or equal to each other. They also need to be able to understand the symbols <, > and =.

Putting the Math In Context

Children began to learn "greater than/less than", or comparing numbers, in kindergarten. Greater Than Less Than Burgers Children usually review this skill in the beginning of first grade, and they should be able to mentally compare numbers up to 10 in their head or by counting on fingers. As they move into comparing larger numbers (11-20 and up), they will usually be asked to read a number line to figure out which is greater. At this stage, learning to understand and use a number line is at least as important as being able to mentally assess if 15 or 19 is the greater number. This is a higher level skill, and some first graders may not be able to do this yet without counting or consulting a number line.

Why It's Important

The skill of comparing numbers will be needed later on in the year when children will need to:

  • compare higher numbers, like 67 and 76
  • use a number line to solve other types of problems
  • identify "1 more than 45", "10 less than 97", etc.

In life, of course, comparing numbers will obviously be an important skill. Will you buy the $30 coat or the $90 coat? Will you take the $20,000 a year job or the $60,000 a year job? You get the idea.

Math Challenges Kids Might Face

  1. The symbols > and < are easily confused. It is hard to remember which side is for the smaller number, and which is the bigger.
  2. Greater Than Cubes
  3. The word "greater" is not used with this meaning in everyday speech. Some kids may think that "greater" means "better", and be confused as to which is the better number. "Fewer" is also a rarely used word that sometimes shows up in these math problems, and children may not be familiar with it.
  4. Children do not automatically know if a number is greater than or less than another number, the way adults do. They are still forming a way of visualizing these relationships mentally, and will need plenty of exposure to the numbers before that happens.
  5. When comparing two-digit numbers like 51 and 39, kids will be likely to focus on the last digit and compare these. The number 39 may look larger because it ends in a 9. The concept of a 10s place and 1s place (also called place value) is not yet clear in the mind of many first graders.

Math Help That Could Make the Difference

  • If a child is having trouble identifying which number is greater, get small objects, like dried beans, that allow her to count out the quantities. If she is now able to answer the problems correctly, the difficulty is with number sense; she needs more practice matching written numbers and quantities so this connection becomes more secure. If this activity does not solve the problem, it is likely that vocabulary is the issue. Play games and do activities that give practice using "greater than" vocabulary.
  • Greater Gator The < and > signs are tricky! Turn them into alligator mouths by drawing teeth inside and a nose on top. Say that this is a numbers-eating alligator, and he is VERY HUNGRY. He always wants to eat the biggest numbers. The wide-open mouth side of the symbol will always point to the bigger number. Say the rhyme: "I'm a hungry alligator; I will eat the one that's greater!" Make it more physical by making an alligator mouth with your hand and lunging at the larger numbers. Dramatic flair and sound effects help.

  • Take a look at how one teacher took this to a whole other level!

  • Print out a number line at the level of your child's current work, and keep a supply of shelled peanuts, dry beans, or other counters for counting when necessary. Use these as tools when necessary to help children succeed with "greater than/less than" problems.
  • Comparing numbers that are above 9 require kids to work with the 10's place and 1's place. The rule when comparing larger numbers is to first compare the numbers in the 10's place; if one is bigger, the whole number is bigger. If they are both the same, they move over to the 1's place and compare those numbers; the bigger one is the greater number.
  • When kids are learning this rule, point to the two numbers in the 10's place and say this rhyme: "Start on this side, then compare. Which is greater? That one there?" (If one number in the 10's place is larger than the other, stop here-you have found your greater number. If the numbers are the same, continue...) "Both the same? Then keep on going." (Move fingers over to 1's place.) "What's the greatest number showing?" After doing this with several numbers, encourage kids to try and say the rhyme with you.

Whiz Kids

Are a few kids leaving the others in the dust? Keep them challenged with these trickier activities:

  • use number cards instead of counters when comparing numbers
  • compare 2-digit numbers
  • think of a number and have the child ask yes-no questions like "Is it less than 15?" to eventually guess your number

For more practice with "greater than" and "less than", try these fun activities for comparing numbers.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey