Today I got out some math block (little unit cubes actually) and had them build a model to represent some of these tricky phrases. Then they drew their model and wrote the corresponding multiplication and division equations. What I thought might be a quick activity that they might rush through turned out to be really challenging.
What I found was that a lot of the kids were mixing up rows and columns, or making arrays when it called for equal groups. This activity let me address those quickly and easily just by moving around the room and observing the kids working.
However, the biggest issue that I saw was a few students who would multiply no matter what. If the task said "14 blocks arranged in groups of 2", they would write 14 x 2 = 28. So, while everyone else was working, I called a small group to my table. Most of them were able to see their mistake once I worked through it with them and the rest of the activity went smoothly. A couple still weren't getting it and I know that's where I need to focus my attention right now.
It wasn't rocket science, but this activity really let me see the kids' thinking. If you would like a copy of the worksheet I made for this, you can get it by clicking on the picture below:
Enjoy! I'd love to hear how it works for your class!