How To Help Your Kids Do Algebra

By: Kenneth Williams

"Mom, I just can't do Algebra."

Of course you'd love to help. But 'Algebra'?

It's a bit outside of a parent's Job Description isn't it?

The good news is you CAN help.

And you don't have to be mathematically minded, either.

All you need is some patience, a little creativity, and being able to see the world through your child's eyes.

Imagine being led into an Egyptian temple, being shown a wall full of weird-looking hieroglyphics, and being asked to translate them.

That's how Algebra feels to some kids.

Your mission is to help your kid understand why we're using hieroglyphics. And then how to use them to solve simple problems.

Here's how you do that:

*** PHASE 1: Get used to the language ***

Algebra uses abbreviations.

It's therefore vital your child is comfortable using abbreviations in daily life.

Explain what abbreviations are and how they're used.

For example, the name Frederick is abbreviated to Fred.

The United States is often abbreviated to the USA or even just the US.

And US states are also abbreviated. New York becomes NY, New Jersey becomes NJ.

Once the basic theory is understood, start introducing abbreviations around the home. There are many ways of doing this. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

~~ Throw a party ~~

Use abbreviations to build up a guest list of invitees.

Bill becomes B.

Marcy becomes M.

And if there's a Jim and a John, use J1 and J2. Or Ji and Jo. Or use surnames to get JW and JS.

~~ Try some home cooking ~~

Teach your child how to make pancakes and give them the recipe as a formula:

2f + 2e + m + s

Where: f=flour, m=milk, s=sugar, e=eggs.

(Okay, I'm no chef, but you get the idea.)

~~ Design a 'healthy eating' schedule ~~

Yes, a little home algebra can even help your family eat more healthily.

Create abbreviations for oranges, apples, bananas, broccoli, celery, etc.

Then plan out your weekly schedule:

Mon: o + a + ba + 2br
Tue: 2ce + p + o + a
Wed: m + 2o

Once your schedule is drawn up, ask your kid to add up how many of each item you need to buy at the grocery store.

You'd never have guessed a shopping list could make such great algebra training, but it does.

When your child is comfortable with the basic language of Algebra, it's time to move on to the next stage:

*** PHASE 2: Solve some problems ***

Much of Algebra involves finding an unknown value, also known as the "x factor".

The best way to develop problem-solving skills in kids is by playing simple games and puzzles.

Here are two particularly useful games for developing the algebra mind.

~~ "Dollars & Dimes" ~~

The idea is to give your child a formula, and they tell you the amount of money.

So you say something like:

"2d plus n plus i".

This means two dollars plus a nickel plus a dime.

(Notice how the letter 'i' has ingeniously been used to represent a dIme. This is because the letter 'd' has already been reserved for the Dollar.)

The answer should be "Two dollars and fifteen cents."

Play this a few times using several combinations of notes and coins.

You can also tell your child an amount of money, and ask them to give you the formula.

So if you say, "Four dollars and five cents",your child replies: "4d plus 5c".

Ideally they should give you the answer using the least amount of coins possible. So for "fifteen cents", they should say "n + i" or "i + n". Not "15c"!

~~ "Think of a Number" ~~

This is a classic you can play anywhere. Try it on long car journeys.

The objective is to guess the mystery number.

You say: "I've thought of a number, added 3 to it, and the result is 7. What is my number?"

Make the questions as easy as possible to start with. As your child gains confidence, make the questions are little harder.

At some point, say you're going to call the mystery number 'x'. Then ask the question in equation form.

Now don't panic. It's simple.

Suppose your question is: "What number plus 3 makes 17?"

You call the mystery number 'x'. And so your equation is:

x + 3 = 17

You ask your child "if x plus three is seventeen, what's x?"

You can also reverse roles and ask them to give you some puzzles. Most kids enjoy this. And it trains them to think more creatively about algebra too.

*** Summary ***

Just a few subtle changes in the way your child thinks can have profound effects on their results in the math class.

Don't overload your child. Go in very small steps with lots of similar examples to give practice and confidence.

Even the smallest thing may be a stumbling block. Like understanding that 'x' means '1x' (the '1' is not usually written down).

Give lots of praise and reward to create and reinforce the 'feel good' factor.

As in any kind of teaching, it's better to ask lots of questions rather than keep telling someone something.

Take enough little leaps and at some point your kid will experience the "Aha!" moment when the whole algebra thing suddenly clicks into place.


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