Introduction to Adding Integers

Operations on integers and integers in general is challenging for many students. Negative numbers are abstract. Whole numbers and fractions can be represented with images. The activity presented draws upon student prior knowledge of thumbs up and down in a vote to make negative more accessible.

The following images are from a Jamboard. Here are accompanying videos on FB Reels and Youtube showing how this works. There are 3 sets of images (or chunks) loosely following a CRA appoach and all referring to the same two situations.

  • Prior Knowlege drawing upon a classroom setting (concrete)
  • Transition using thumbs (representational)
  • Introduction of adding integers, using thumbs (more abstract but still supported by

Prior Knowledge

The activity starts with a couple of classroom votes using thumbs up and down.

This is followed by scaffolding to focus on how the voting works through a comparison of the quantity of thumbs up vs down.


This section introduces thumbs as counters for integers, which is a common instructional strategy (yellow for positive and red for negative). The scaffolding is the same.

thumbs from Educlips on TPT

Adding Integers

Finally, references to thumbs is replaced with the integers values. The thumbs tokens are maintained to allow for continued concrete representation.

Accessing Jamboard

To access the Jamboard you must make a copy.

Color Coding and Representation for Integers

adding integers chips and colored pencils

This example involves adding integers which is a major challenge for many students. There are two strategies present in the photo.

Color coding is an effective way to break down a concept into parts. Here red is used for negative numbers and yellow for positive. The numbers are written in red and yellow with colored pencils.

The chips are a concrete representation. Typically integers are only presented in number form and often with a rule similar to the one below. The strategy is to count out the appropriate number of red chips for the negative number and yellow chips for positive number. Each yellow chip cancels a red chip and what remains is the final answer. If there are two negative numbers then there is no canceling and the total number of red chips is computed (same with positive and yellow).

  • + + = +
  • – – = –
  • + – use the bigger number…

Rules are easy to forget or mix up especially when students learn the rules for multiplying integers. Concrete allows students to internalize the concept as opposed to memorize some abstract rule in isolation.