The orange circle on the right looks bigger, but in fact both are the same size. The deception is based on the additional sensory input.

Similarly, the prerequisites for taking algebra are often considered to be basic skills. This is largely an illusion. I routinely encounter students who are referred to me for help as they have been caught in an infinite loop of working on basic math such as number operations (adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division) before moving on to algebra, with limited progress. I am not suggesting basic math skills are not important but am focused on the context of prerequisites needed to engage algebra. Many of the students I have helped who were in this situation. We worked to quickly move them into algebra where they were successful.

One student worked on half a year of 4th grade math during her 7th grade year. During the spring of that 7th grade year and the subsequent summer, I worked with her on algebraic thinking and algebra topics. She successfully completed algebra 1 during her 8th grade year.

The Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) for Math maps out the prerequisites as seen in the CCSS math domains (below). Throughout elementary school, Operations and Algebraic Thinking topics are covered. The Algebraic Thinking standards establish for the students a foundation for algebra taught in middle and high school. A focus of algebra is to model or represent patterns or relationships in real life situations using equations, tables, and graphs. These include quantities modeled by variables.

Below is a break down of this foundation in elementary school. If you are supporting a student in middle or high school who is taking algebra and has major gaps in his or her math education, look to these standards for the essential prerequisite skills.

First Grade: represent situations in word problems by adding or subtracting, and introduce equations (and equal sign).

Second Grade: Represent, solve word problems, introduce multiplication as groups of objects.

Third Grade: represent, solve word problems, explain patterns

Fourth Grade: Solve word problems, generate and analyze patterns

Fifth Grade: Write expressions (equations are 2 expressions with an = in between), analyze patterns and relationships

Unit rate (e.g., hamburger meat on sale for $2.39 per pound or you make $13 per hour) is an incredibly important topic in middle and high school. First, unit rates and unit costs are common in life. Second, in the Common Core State Standards math categories you can see that Ratios and Proportions (which includes unit rate) are a 6th and 7th grade topic and are then replaced by Functions in 8th grade. Below is a photo showing a graph of a function you can see that the slope in an application is a unit rate.

The unit rate is also conceptually challenging whether it is in a function or is a unit cost at the store. This is a major sticking point for many students in special ed who have fallen behind. To address this, I used the approach below.

First, I present a pack of items the student likes (4 pack of Muscle Milk for this student). Use a Jamboard to show a 4 pack and the price of the 4 pack (photo on left). Then I “pull out” the 4 individual bottles and divide the $8 among the bottles to show $2 for each bottle. Finally, I have the student shop for packs of items at a grocery store or Amazon and compute the price for 1 item using a mildly scaffolded handout.

I Follow the same steps for ounces or pounds but show how 4 oz is divided into single ounces (in lieu of a pack divided into single items). Then the student shops for items that can easily be divided to get a unit cost.

As I wrote previously, shopping is dense with math tasks as are grocery stores. Here are some division situations that are sneaky challenging and require a student to know when and why to divide before even reaching for the calculator. I will use these to help illustrate the fact that life skills math is not simply counting money or using a calculator to add up prices. There is a great deal of problem solving and thinking skills that need to be developed.

For example, if a student has $60 to spend on gifts for her 3 teachers the student needs to understand that she can spend up to $20 per teacher (before even talking about taxes).

An entry point for division can involve a dividing situation the students intuitively understand, e.g., sharing food. Start with 2 friends sharing 8 Buffalo wings evenly (below).

This can lead into the 3 teachers sharing the $60 evenly (below). In turn, this can be followed by the online shopping shown above.

This approach can be used to develop an understanding of unit cost (cited in the shopping is dense post). Start with a pack of items to allow the students to see the cost for a single item before getting into unit cost by ounces, for example.

I have had success with teaching these division related concepts using sheer repetition as much of our learning is experiential learning. Using a Google Jamboard as shown in the photos allows for the repetition.

This is apparently the case when students are learning about inequalities such as x < 4 because I have seen many high school and college students struggle with this topic. The challenge is that teachers are often focused on the math symbols and steps as opposed to the math concepts. In contrast, below are Google Jamboard slides I use (you can make a copy and edit) to introduce the concept of inequalities.

First, I start with a topic of interest and possibly prior knowledge for the students (age to get a drivers license – below). I present the idea of an inequality in context before I show any symbols. In this case, students identify ages that “work”.

Then I introduce the symbol (below). In this case, I include equal to for the inequality (x > 16 vs x > 16). The students plot the same points then we discuss that there are many other ages that work. These ages are called solutions. We put a closed circle on all of the solutions. Then discuss that ages are not exactly whole numbers so we can plot points on all the decimals. Then we discuss that the solutions keep going to the right so we keep drawing dots to the right. There are so many dots we draw a “line” instead of all the dots.

Then we do the same steps for a situation in which the number listed (52 in the case below) is NOT a solution. The students put dots closer and closer to the number but cannot put a closed circle on 52 as a solution (top photo below). Then we present the symbols and talk about the number as a cutoff point that we get really close to but cannot touch. Therefore we use an open circle to show the number is NOT a solution.

This introduction can be followed by problems on a handout, ideally with context then without.

Math is a language with words and other symbols that also makes sense of the world around us. We consume and know more math than we realize or allow ourselves credit for.

When buying the latest iteration of an iPhone, we may call forth algebra. How much will you pay if you buy an iPhone for $1000 and pay $80 a month for service? Well, that depends on how many months you will use this iteration before moving on to the next iPhone. The number of months is unknown so algebra gives us a symbol to represent this unknown number of months, x (or n or whichever letter you want).

Just as there is formal and informal English (or other language), we can engage algebra formally or informally. You don’t need to write an equation such as y = 1000 + 80x to figure out how much you will pay. You can do this informally, compute 80 times 10 months + 1000 on the calculator. Then try 80 times 12 months etc.

Math provides us a means of organizing and communicating ideas that involve quantities like the total cost for buying an iPhone.

The difficulty in learning math is that it is often taught out of context, like a secret code. In contrast, a major emphasis in reading is comprehension through meaning, such as activating prior knowledge (see below).

In fact, math absolutely can and, in my view, should be taught by activating prior knowledge. My approach is to work from where the student is and move towards the “mathy” way of doing a problem.

Without meaning, students are mindlessly following steps, not closer to making sense of the aspects of the world that involve numbers.

Effective instruction is effective because it addresses the key elements of how the brain processes information. I want to share an analogy to help adults (parents and educators) fully appreciate this.

Below is a model of information processing first introduced to me in a master’s course at UCONN.

Here is a summary of what is shown in the model.

Our senses are bombarded by external stimuli: smells, images, sounds, textures and flavors.

We have a filter that allows only some of these stimuli in. We focus on the ones that are most interesting or relevant to us.

Our working memory works to make sense of the stimuli and to package it for storage. Our working memory is like a computer, if there is too much going on, working memory will buffer.

The information will be stored in long term memory.

Some will be dropped off in some random location and our brain will forget the location (like losing our keys)

Some will be stored in a file cabinet in a drawer with other information just like it. This information is easier to find.

Here is the analogy. You are driving down the street, like the one shown below.

There is a lot of visual stimuli. The priority is for you to pay attention to the arrows for the lanes, the red light and the cars in front of you. You have to process your intended direction and choose the lane.

There is other stimuli that you filter out because it is not pertinent to your task: a car parked off to the right, the herbie curbies (trash bins), the little white arrows at the bottom of the photo. There is extraneous info you may allow to pass through your filter because it catches your eye: the ladder on the right or the cloud formation in the middle.

Maybe you are anxious because you are running late or had a bad experience that you are mulling over. This is using up band width in your working memory. Maybe you are a relatively new driver and simple driving tasks eat up the bandwidth as well.

For students with a disability that impacts processing or attention, the task demands described above are even more challenging. A student with ADHD has a filter that is less effective. A student with autism (a rule follower type) may not understand social settings such as a driver that will run a red light that just turned red. A student with visual processing issues may struggle with picking out the turn arrows.

The students loved playing the game, it was engaging so they practiced the counting out money, I was able to collect data, and I was able to differentiate. When I co-taught a Consumer Math course, I would assign a para (instructional assistant) to facilitate the game with a couple students and to collect data.

It is easy to get caught up in the steps and rote memorization when working with fractions. The brain processes information more effectively when the information is meaningful. ADHD makes paying attention to rote memorization of steps even more challenging.

Below is an excerpt of work I completed with a middle school student who has ADHD. This was completed extemporaneously as intervention (you see his initial attempt was incorrect) but can be used as Universal Design in whole class instruction.

Here is a break down of how I helped the student after seeing his mistake in his initial attempt. First, I modeled the first mixed number as pizza pies.

Then I presented the problem in pizza terms. “You have 3 pies and 1 slice and you are going to give me 1 pie and 2 slices. Do you have enough slices?” <wait for response> “You don’t, so what can we do?” <wait for response> “We cut up one of the pies.” I have the student cut the pie into fourths.

I then make the connection with the mixed number and guide the student to taking away 1 pie and writing 4/4. This provides more concrete meaning for writing 1 as 4/4.

In turn, this provides meaning for the new mixed number and meaning for the subtraction of the whole numbers (pies) and the fractions (slices).

Comparing numbers is very challenging for some students and likely speaks to a major gap in their number sense. It is also very challenging to address effectively with these students. The photo below shows an entry point into I have used with success in helping such a student.

Even for these struggling students, taller and shorter are likely prior knowledge that students understand intuitively. The people outline on the vertical number chart leverages this intuitive understanding to compare numbers.

I start by showing 2 different outlines and asking which is “taller” and stick use that term until the student gets the idea. This isolates the focus to comparing items.

Then I redo all the comparisons using the term “taller” and when the student makes a selection, 10 in this case, I reply “yes, 10 is MORE!” and have them repeat “more.”

Finally, I redo the comparisons asking which is more and for improper responses I ask which is taller then restate that the taller item is “more.”

For a change of pace, I created a revised version of the card game WAR by using these outlines (no face cards). The cards are 5″x7″ which I purchased on Amazon. Here is a link to the WORD document with the outlines I cut out and taped to the cards. After a student shows success with this revised game, I play regular WAR but use the people outlines for feedback to make a correction or as a prompt as necessary, with the intent to fade their use.

I was recruited to help a middle school student who is having a very rough time at this time in his life. It was shared with me that he likes Marvel superheroes and he is struggling with counting money and multiplication. Below are some ideas I presented for a test run and photos of the items I ordered for these suggested activities.

For multiplication

Put the heroes (or villains) in groups of 2 and have him count out 4 groups and compute. Use different groups and number per group. (IGNORE the numbers on the cards)

Get a group of 10 villain cards. Pretend heroes have to travel in groups of 2 and ask how many groups to get 10 heroes to fight the 10 villains. (IGNORE the numbers on the cards). Variations of this.

After gets the idea of groupings, focus on the number on the cards and show him two 5s and have him compute. Variations of this.

Play a game where he draws two cards and has to multiply the cards (start with very low numbers or maybe show him a 2 card and he has to pick another card to multiply by 2.

For Money

Tell him he earn money to buy these figures, one at a time – a monetary version of a token economy. Have him rank them by his favorite to least favorite and come up with a price for each with his favorite figures costing more. Start with the least favorite and make the price such that with a little practice he could count out the coins to pay for it. Maybe 17 cents with dimes and pennies. He has to count out the money correctly and independently to actually buy the item.

Other options

If he needs work with addition you can play WAR in which 3 cards are played and each person adds to find the total. For subtraction do the same with 2 cards.

You can play subtraction in which one person has superheroes and the other has villains. In order for a villain to win a villain card has to be higher than a hero card by 3 or more.

You can write an 11, 12 and 13 on the J, Q, K cards respectively. All the games can be presented though Direct Instruction – I do, we do, you do. The You do can be used as daily progress monitoring. If he needs prompting this can be recorded. This can be used for your progress reports. Attached is a data sheet I use for activities.