Tag Archives: inequality

Introduction to 2 Variable Inequalities

Previously, I shared how I use a Google Jamboard to introduce 1 variable linear equalities with a focus on conceptual understanding. I use the same approach for the 2 variable version (example problem below).

A conceptual gap that typically arises is the students do not understand what the shading represents. This is what I am addressing from the start using a Jamboard. First, the focus is on understanding the inequality and identifying a single point that works (below).

The next step is for students to determine more points that are solutions for the inequality, with no equal to part. (below).

The equal to part is addressed separately (below).

The equal to and the greater parts previously addressed are combined together.

The inequality is will be expanded to include an operation (+ 2) with a focus on the equal to part first.

The greater than with no equal to is addressed.

Then the equal to and greater than are addressed sequential. The equal to results in dots in a straight line and in lieu of plotting all the points, a line is drawn (building on the intro to 1 variable inequalities). This is followed by the greater than part and shading in lieu of plotting all of the dots above. THIS is where they gain an understanding of what the aforementioned shading is.

Finally, the dashed line is addressed by showing, as was done with the 1 variable inequalities, that there is a cutoff point that is not part of the solution set so in lieu of plotting a bunch of open circles, a dashed line is drawn.

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Introduction to Inequalities

For students with special needs, the teacher speaking “math” to students sounds like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons.

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.

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More Than: Concept and Symbol

The alligator eats the bigger number is the common approach for student to use inequality symbols (<  > <  > ). I find that students remember the sentence but many do not retain the concept or use the symbols correctly, even in high school. The reason, I believe, is that we introduce additional extraneous information: the act of eating, the mouth which is supposed to translate into a symbol, the alligator itself. For a student with processing or working memory challenges this additional information can be counter productive.

alligator eats bigger number

I use the dot method. By way of example here is the dot method. I show the symbols and highlight the end points to show one side has 2 dots and the other, 1.


Then I show 2 numbers such as 3 and 5 and ask “which is bigger?” In most cases the student indicates 5. I explain that because 5 is bigger it gets the 2 dots and then the 3 gets the 1 dot.

3 dots 5

I then draw the lines to reveal the symbol. This method explicitly highlights the features of the symbol so the symbol can be more effectively interpreted.

3 less than 5.

That is the presentation of the symbol. To address the concept of more, especially for students more severely impacted by a disability, I use the following approach. I ask the parent for a favorite food item of the student, e.g. chicken nuggets. I then show two choices (pretend the nuggets look exactly the same) and prompt the student to make a selection. This brings in their intuitive understanding of more.

concept of more chicken nuggets just plates

I think use the term “more than” by pointing to the plate with more and explain “this plate has more than this other plate.” I go on to use the quantities.

concept of more chicken nuggets more than words

Finally, I introduce the symbol to represent this situation.

concept of more chicken nuggets more than symbol

Below is the example my 3rd grade son used to explain less than to a classmate with autism. This method worked for the classmate!

Lucas less than example

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Which is less than?

inequality symbol

Some or even many students struggle with the inequality symbols. They simply cannot remember which symbol is less than or greater than. By the time they arrive at my class they have been exposed to the “alligator eats the bigger number” method but they have forgotten. I’ve found traction by using the dot method seen above. The student writes 1 dot for the smaller number and 2 dots for the larger then writes the segments. Try it.

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