Lesson Idea: $1 Math – For the Teachers

When I started teaching 5th grade, I remember being surprised that the math curriculum started out with place value, addition and subtraction. I thought those things were too easy for fifth graders.

I soon discovered that the kids really did need to review these skills. In some cases they still needed to learn and master these skills.

Given that these kids have had five years of addition worksheets already under their belts, I tried to find activities that would give them a chance to practice but would also be engaging. Ideally, I wanted activities that would actually be fun.

$1 Math is my favorite.



Basically it works like this:

A=1¢, B=2¢,C=3¢, etc.

I put a page on the overhead that showed the alphabet letters with their respective values.

I’d ask: “How much does your first name cost?” Then I’d write my own name on the board with the related amounts and add it up, to model for kids who needed an example. Usually they caught on pretty quickly.

Once they had the “cost” of their names, I would ask: “Who do you think in this class has the most expensive name?”

This is when their eyes would start to light up. The kids were start to look around each other, sly smiles on some of their faces, and they’d call out names and we’d compare values.

Then, of course, they’d want to try full names or last names or some other combination to increase their totals.

I loved listening to their logic.

  • “I think Alex’s name is most expensive because x is at the end of the alphabet and costs more.”
  • “Can I use my whole first name instead of my nickname? It has more letters.”
  • “Zach has a z in his name, so he’s probably got the most expensive name.”

They were adding, they were predicting, they were estimating, and they were doing mental math. And they were enjoying it.

Some years, to differentiate the lesson, I might have one group of students work with a given list of words to find the most expensive.

Usually, though, we’d spend the rest of the class period trying to come up with words that equal exactly $1.

Sometimes I’d give them clues (a day of the week, an orchestra instrument (plural), a type of weather). And usually I’d join them in trying to come up with some new ones, because I thought it was fun too.

If the intent of the lesson was to practice addition, they’d do their work on scrap paper or mini white board.

If the intent is to focus on estimation and mental math, then I’d give them calculators to check their work.


Throughout the year, I’d use this activity again as an Anchor Activity or to fill extra class time if another lesson finished 5-10 minutes early.


| Grades 2-7 | RIT <161-210 |
  • If A=1¢, B=2¢, C=3¢, etc., students estimate/predict and calculate the value of words.
  • Note: Can also be used on 5-10 minute blocks as an Anchor Activity or to use class time before the bell rings.
Lesson Idea: $1 Math
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