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.

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.

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.

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.

Solving equations with a variable on both sides proves to be exceedingly tricky for many students. My approach is to focus on the individual expressions taken from both sides of the equation and to present them in the context of a relevant real life situation. The photo shows a snippet of the handout I use. The table is scaffolded to help students compute costs based on number of toppings. The pizza places charge the same at 3 toppings. Domino’s charges more for 0-2 toppings and Pizza Hut charges more for 4 or more toppings. The color coding fleshes this out.

Overall the kids are actively engaged and the variable, expressions and the overall equation has meaning.