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

Critical dominoes in math education start falling in 6th and 7th grade with the last ones falling in college. If you have a student who struggles with math and is entering or returning to middle school, now is the time to intervene to avoid more serious issues related to math education in the future. If your student is not going to college or is not accessing the general curriculum, I suggest you read this.)

Below is a chart showing the different categories of Common Core of State Standards (CCSS) math (called domains) at different grade levels. For the majority of students who will attend college, the traditional algebra based sequence (algebra 1, algebra 2, and maybe pre-calculus, calculus) is the path of math courses to be taken. Given this, for students who struggle in math but have a post-secondary education as a goal, the domains I emphasize in middle school are Expressions and Equations, Ratios and Proportional Relationships, and Functions. For high school, I emphasize Algebra and Functions.

Looking at the overviews for CCSS math standards (below) you can see the dominoes line up.

In 6th grade, Ratios and Proportions are an entry point for Functions in 8th grade which leads to Functions in high school.

In 6th grade, Expressions and Equations are the entry point for Expressions and Equations in 7th and 8th grade, which lead to Algebra in high school.

If your student is struggling with the middle school topics I cited and the gaps are not filled, the struggle will be carried with them into high school and into college.

I recommend the following:

Focus IEP math objectives on the priority units of the math curriculum, as cited above.

Ask for examples of mastery for the objectives to help you evaluate progress and mastery. Have this in place from day 1.

I am rolling out a series of videos on math topics from middle school and algebra 1. Here is a link to the folder with the accompanying handouts. This post will be updated periodically.

Let me know if your school is covering a topic that is challenging and students would benefit from an alternative presentation. I will see what I can do. The links to the videos are listed below the photo.

In general math is taught by focusing on the steps. Conduct a Google search for solving equations and you will see the steps presented (below). You need a video to help your student understand solving and you typically get a presenter standing at the board talking through the examples. (I’ve posted on my approach to solving equations.)

When the math is taught through the skill approach the student may be able to follow the steps but often does not understand why the steps work (below). The brain wants information to be meaningful in order to process and store it effectively.

To help flesh this situation out consider the definitions of concept and skills (below). Concept: An idea of what something is or how it works – WHY. Skill: “Ability” to execute or perform “tasks” – DOING.

Here is how the concept first approach can play out. One consultation I provided involved an intelligent 10th grader who was perpetually stuck in the basic skills cycle of math (the notion that a student can’t move on without a foundation of basic skills). He was working on worksheet after worksheet on order of operations. I explained down and monthly payments then posed a situation shown at the top of the photo below. I prompted him to figure out the answer on his own. He originally forgot to pay the down-payment but then self-corrected. Then I showed him the “mathy” way of doing the problem. This allowed him to connect the steps in solving with the steps he understood intuitively, e.g. pay the $1,000 down payment first which is why the 1000 is subtracted first. Based on my evaluation the team immediately changed the focus of this math services to support algebra as they realized he was indeed capable of doing higher level math.

I introduce solving equations by building off of the visual presentation used to introduce equations. The two photos below show an example of handouts I use. Below these two photos I offer an explanation of how I use these handouts.

First I develop an understanding of a balanced equation vis-a-vis an unbalance equation using the seesaw representation.

I then explain that the same number of guys must be removed from both sides to keep the seesaw balanced.

I then apply the subtraction shown above to show how the box (containing an unknown number of guys) is isolated. I explain that the isolated box represents a solution and that getting the box by itself is called solving.

I use a scaffolded handout to flesh out the “mathy” steps. This would be followed by a regular worksheet.

I extend the solving method using division when there are multiple boxes. I introduce the division by explaining how dividing a Snickers bar results in 2 equal parts. When the boxes are divided I explain both boxes have the same number of guys.

The students are then provided a scaffolded handout followed by a regular worksheet.

61 cents per ounce is a rate of change. Graph the line modeled by this (y intercept is 0) and it becomes slope of the line. In referring to algebra we often hear, “when will I ever need this?” My response is “all the time!” Our job as teachers is to make this connection for students.

This is a meaning making approach to introducing equations. I will walk through the parts shown in the photo in the space below this photo. (A revised edition of this handout will be used in a video on this topic.)

First I explain the difference between an expression (no =) and an equation (has =). An equation is two expressions set equal to each other (21 is an expression).

I then develop the idea of a balanced equation and will refer to both sides of the see saw as a prelude to both sides of the equation. I also focus on the same number of people on both sides as necessary for balance.

At this point I am ready to talk about an unknown. Here is the explanation I use with the photo shown below.

I start with the seesaw at the top. The box has some guys in it but we don’t know how many.

We do notice the seesaw is balanced so both sides are equal.

This means there must be 2 guys in the box.

I follow by prompting the students to figure out how many guys are in the box(es) in the bottom two seesaws.

Finally, I explain that the number of guys in the box is the solution because it makes the seesaw balanced.

There are multiple instructional strategies in play.

Connection to student prior knowledge – they intuitively understand a seesaw. This lays the foundation for the parts of an equation and the concept of equality.

Visual representation that can be recalled while discussing the symbolic representation, e.g. x + 1 = 3

Meaning making which allows for more effective storage and recall of information.

Below is a screen shot of a video in a series of videos that provide instruction on algebra topics. The videos are designed to make algebra more accessible for almost all students.

The presentations include the following instructional strategies

A focus on conceptual understanding (not just teaching steps)

Connection to prior knowledge

Breaking the math topics down into “bite-sized” pieces (chunking)

Color coding

Making the math relevant

The videos can be used in the following ways

Differentiation for students who need an alternative presentation

Initial instruction for students who missed instruction

Initial instruction as part of a class, e.g. flipping a classroom

For use when a substitute is covering a class

Intervention based instruction

Part of math support services (especially for special ed teachers who are not well versed in algebra topics)

Homework support

The videos include a link to the handouts used in the presentation. Additional practice worksheets will be included as well.

NOTE: this is only a sample, with more samples to follow. Please share feedback or ask questions.

Graphing linear functions and the underlying concept are challenging for many students. The video below shows a scaffolded approach to teaching how to graph. This approach also addresses the concept of the graph as a visual representation of all possible solutions (see photo above). Students often do not realize that the line is actually comprised of an infinite set of points which represent all the solutions. Here is a link to the document used in the video.

Function notation is challenging for many students yet we teachers overlook the reasons for the challenges. For example, students see the parentheses and rely on the rule they were taught previously, y(5) is “y times 5”. Because this is overlooked by teachers we often skim over the concept of notation and delve into the steps. This document is a means of presenting the concept and the use of function notation in a meaningful way. Feel free to use or revise and use the document as you wish.