Tag Archives: concrete

Lego Fractions

The photo below is courtesy of Robert Yu, Head of Lego Education China, as shared by Jonathan Rochelle, Director for Project Management at Google.

The use of Legos shown here is a classic (and wicked clever) example of manipulatives.

Lego fraction model

Before writing the actual fractions students can use drawings as shown below. The sequence of manipulatives, drawings then the actual “mathy” stuff constitutes a Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) model. Concrete = manipulative, Representational = picture, abstract = symbolic or the “mathy” stuff.


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Place Value Representation

Here is an easy way to create and implement strategy to unpack place value for students (created by one of my former graduate students). I suggest using this after manipulatives and visual representations (drawing on paper) in a CRA sequence. It is hands on but it includes the symbolic representation (numbers). Hence is another step before jumping into the mathy stuff.

pace value representation just numbers.jpg

The focus can shift to money as well.

2017-06-07 18.06.49

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Simplifying Expressions (Combine Like Terms)

Simplifying expressions (see photo below) is one of the most challenging algebra tasks for many students receiving special education services. A major problem is that it is typically presented as symbol manipulation…addressed in very symbolic form.

combine like terms

My approach is to make math relevant and more concrete. Below is a scaffolded handout I use to help unpack the concept. In the handout I start with items the student intuitively understands, tacos and burritos or tacos and dollar bills. In the top left of this handout the student is asked how many tacos he or she has. 3 tacos eventually is written as 3T. See next photo to see how the handout is completed as NOTES for the students.

simplifying expressions tacos

As I work with the problems below I remind the student that the “T” stands for taco so “3T” stands for 3 tacos. This takes the student back to a more concrete understanding of what the symbols mean.

simplifying expressions tacos completed

To address negatives I use photos of eating a taco or burrito. “-2T” is eating 2 tacos.

So “3T – 2T” means I have 3 tacos and ate 2. I have 1 taco left… 1T. For students who may need an even more concrete representation, use actual tacos or other edible items.

simplifying expressions tacos with negatives


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Snow Math

2017-03-14 10.03.23

Here’s a common word problem used for linear functions and equations (y=mx+b):

There are 6 inches of snow on the ground. Snow is falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour. Write a linear equation showing total snow as a function of time (in hours). The equation would be y=2x + 6.

Often the word problems like this are presented on a sheet of paper in isolation as an attempt to make the math relevant and to develop conceptual understanding. For students who have trouble with conceptual understanding, words on paper are likely too abstract or symbolic to allow applications like the one above to be meaningful.

The real life application is useful if presented more effectively. Here’s an approach to use the same scenario but in a more relevant and meaningful presentation. The photo above shows the current amount of snow – call it 6 inches. Students can be shown the photo to allow for a discussion about accumulation and for their estimates of the amount of snow shown. The photo below shows an excerpt from a storm warning. Showing this warning and a snow fall video can allow for a discussion about rate of snow fall and the purpose for storm warnings. Combined, this approach can lead into the above word problem.

2017-03-13 21.57.29 - Edited

Once the application is presented students can be asked to compute snow levels after 1 hour, 2 hours etc. Then they can be asked to determine how long it would take for the accumulation to reach 18 inches (the prediction for the day this post was composed). After computing the answers WITHOUT the equation the students can be shown how to use the equation – the “mathy way.”

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Introduction to Slope

which-jobSlope is one of the the most important topics in algebra and is often understood by students at a superficial level. I suggest introducing slope first by drawing upon prior knowledge and making the concept relevant (see photo above).  This includes presenting the topic using multiple representations: the original real life situation, rates (see photo above) and tables, visuals,  and hands on cutouts (see photos below).

10-dollars-per-hour-graphA key aspect of slope is that it represents a relationship between 2 variables. Color coding (red for hours, green for pay) can be used to highlight the 2 variables and how they interact –  see photo above and below.5-dollars-per-hour-graph

The photo below can be used either in initial instruction, especially for co-taught classes, or as an intervention for students who needs a more concrete representation of a rate (CRA). The clocks (representing hours) and bills can be left in the table for or cut out.cut-outs-hours-bills

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Hands on Approach to Factoring out the GCF


Factors are “things being multiplied”, e.g. 2 and 3 are factors of 6.

Factoring polynomials like 5×2 + 15 above is one of the most challenging algebra topics, especially for students with special needs. To make these problems more accessible a more concrete approach is possible. The photo above shows how finding a greatest common factor (GCF) is possible using a hands on, visual approach. Click on this link to a folder with a document explaining this approach and with a document that is a master for these card cutouts.

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Making Discount Meaningful


Educators teaching math typically start with the “mathy” stuff first. For example, for finding the sales price teachers may start with showing students the steps to calculate (photo below).

I start with the concept, either with a pictorial representation or actual objects to represent the underlying concept. In the photo above, I show an object (related to the student’s interest – this student is into weight training) on sale. The $50 circled in yellow represent the original price. I explain the concept of being on sale and discount and show that 20% is $10 to take away (marked out). This leaves $40 (in green) which is the sales price. This allows for conceptual understanding before showing him the “mathy” way of doing the problem.

compute discount

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Analogies: Making Math Meaningful


Math is an esoteric subject for most people. Good instruction makes information meaningful. One method for making information meaningful is to connect new information to prior experience.

In this situation the new information involves determining whether shapes are similar (see photo below). One example of student prior experience with this topic would be shrinking people down. In the photo above I use Mini Me and Dr. Evil and their respective (and fabricated) weights and shoe sizes as measures that will eventually give way to measures of sides of a polygon (below). When working on the problem below the students can be prompted by recalling the analogy of Mini Me and Dr. Evil.


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CRA for Solving Equations

SUMLOWS part 1

This is a photo of a handout from a special ed conference shared by Dr. Shaunita Strozier (sstrozier@valdosta.edu) of Valdosta State University. It shows the use of algebra tiles to provide a concrete level of the concept of an equation and solving the equation. The photos on the left show the R or representational level of the concept. Her approach is called SUMLOWS which is an acronym explained in this handout.

SUMLOWS part 2SUMLOWS part 3

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Cutouts for Area of Irregular Shapes

Students have trouble with irregular shapes largely because they cannot visualize or determine the measures the dimensions of the individual parts. The photos below show a hands on activity to help students with these challenges. The students are cut out the individual shapes and write in the dimensions. This method allows them to see the individual parts and the respective dimensions. (The second has calculation errors.) This activity is followed by a handout in which students can shade in the different parts which is a step towards more abstraction – CRA.trapezoid area cut outstrapezoid area cut outs two triangles

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