Techniques for introducing Primary School children to algebra

Some mathematical concepts can prove especially difficult for children and algebra can often fall into that bracket. Although children in Key Stage 1 will have minimal exposure to algebra, algebra equations feature regularly on Key Stage 2 SATs papers.

In 2010, the Conservative government announced plans to test Primary School pupils in algebra and geometry, in a bid to bring back traditional mathematics disciplines. This may be picked up by the current coalition government.

Pages 9-10 of Section 1 (Laying the foundations for algebra) of the NNS (National Numeracy Strategy) Framework for Teaching Mathematics gives a summary of the work on early algebra which needs to be undertaken at Key Stages 1 and 2.

Familiarising children with basic algebra equations at the earliest opportunity will help to lay the foundation for success with more complex concepts they will meet in Secondary. Below are a number of techniques for introducing Primary School children to algebra:

Start with a familiar number sentence
Most children in Key Stage 1 are familiar with their number bonds to 10 and this can prove a good starting point for exposing children to algebra. For example, a basic sum such as 7 + 3 = 10, can be changed to 7 + n = 10. You can then ask children to spend a few minutes contemplating what the value of n could be. The following questions should also help to draw out children's mathematical knowledge:
  • 'What do you need to add to seven to make ten?' 'What do you know that might help?'
  • 'What do I need to take from six to leave four?' 'What do you know that might help?'
Show children how letters can be used to identify patterns
Show children a simple number sequence such as 2,4,6,8, n. You could then ask them to help you identify the core rule in the pattern (add 2) and then use this to calculate n.

Play simple mathematics games that will involve children using algebra
The 'number lines' game below (0 - 10) will challenge children to begin writing algebra equations:

Leah made a secret jump along her number line. Then she made a jump of five and landed on 9. How long was her secret jump?

This can be translated to x + 5 = 9, when this is inversed it will be 9 - 5 = x
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