Thursday, June 20, 2013

Throwback Thursday!

I am joining the fun of a NEW linky party!

This linky party is meant to highlight some of your previous blog posts. Here is a throwback for you today--it is one of my favorite posts EVER! You may know from reading my blog that I am not only passionate about teaching math, but I am incredibly passionate about teaching math so students will learn! So, here you are:

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Ask yourself and answer these three questions:
  • What do you understand the equals sign to represent?
  • What do you teach your students about the equals sign?
  • What do your students understand about what the equals sign represents?
8 + 3 = 11

12 - 5 = 7

33 x 10 = 330

Most people understand the equals sign to show where to put an answer. When they look at the above number sentences they will likely interpret the left-hand side as the problem and the right-hand side as the answer.

A few weeks ago, I started having my classes work on basic number sense (since they still don't have it in 4th grade--a future "Think About It! discussion!). The very first thing we talked about was the equals sign. I asked them what they knew about it and all of them told me something along the lines of "it means the answer" or "it means 'is'; where you put the answer." I was a little taken aback and suddenly realized why they struggle with very basic problems such as 12 + __ = 20 or 7 x __ = 140. (Do your students struggle with those too?)

I have seen several recent studies that involve asking students the same questions about the equals sign. Let's, for instance, use 4 + 7 = __ + 2. On problems like these students would oftentimes add 4 and 7 and place the sum in the blank so it reads 4 + 7 = 11 + 2, completely ignoring the 2. I'm sure you as an adult (and teacher) look at that and instantly understand how the number sentence and thinking is wrong. Unfortunately, most students will not.

The equals sign indicates equality. It is placed between two things of equal value. Think of it as a balance. So when you say 8 + 3 = 11, you are saying that 8 + 3 has the same value as 11.

Can you see how knowing this in elementary school will help students better understand algebraic equations?? When students are learning about evaluating algebraic equations such as 3x + 7 = 28 they MUST understand that both sides are equal or they will never understand how to solve for x. The time to teach this is NOT in middle school but in the early grades.  

Students should also understand that one side of the equal sign does not always have to have a single number. The equals sign can show two expressions that have the same value, like 9 x 4 = 12 x 3.

I want to address one more misconception--the running equals sign. Here is a word problem and example:

Sally had 4 marbles. She cleaned her room and found 3 more marbles. Her friend then gave her 8 marbles. How many marbles does Sally have now?
Number sentence: 4 + 3 = 7 + 8 = 15

How is that wrong? Remember, both sides have to be equal. The correct way to write it would either include multiple number sentences or parentheses:

(4 + 3) + 8 = 15


4 + 3 = 7
7 + 8 = 15

I wouldn't say repairing this misconception is a quick fix, but it is definitely doable. (And, of course, it would be better if instruction about the equals sign is correct from the beginning.)
  • You can start by having a discussion about it with your kiddos. Bring in a balance to help you explain (for instance, put two pennies on one side, then add 6 more to it. Record that as 2 + 6. Then add pennies to the other side (8) and let your students witness how the trays become balanced. Record it as 2 + 6 = 8.)
  • Another activity would be to have students use equality cards. You can make some simply by putting a number sentence with one missing number on one card and have the students match it to a number sentence in the same fact family with a different number missing (e.g., 6 + __ = 8 on one card and 8 = __ + 2 on the other.) Look for a free Equality Card activity in my Teachers Notebook store!
  • You could also make a mat with an equals sign and have students place cards of equal value on either side of the symbol. The cards could contain pictorial models, standard form, expanded form, etc.
Sidenote: I'm not sure if you are familiar with the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives--if you aren't, you NEED to be! It is exactly what it states. The site has every manipulative imaginable in virtual form for FREE. It also has activities to go along with each.

To those that teach the higher grades--check out this balance that provides visual representation of algebraic equations:

Awesome, right?!?

Even if you don't teach the higher grades I encourage you to check out the algebraic equation scale and ponder about how easy it would be for our current students who do not understand an equals sign.

Think about it...

I always enjoy incorporating literature into math class. I have not actually read this book but it looks like a cute little story about creating equal sides. Check it out by clicking on the picture.


Also, I would LOVE to tell you to look for these posts on a certain day and time but I can't right now--life is not that predictable! Installment number 2 will be before school starts back though! :)

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I would still LOVE to hear you thoughts! :)

And don't forget about Sweet & Simple Saturday--two days away! :)


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post about the equal sign! I will definitely make sure that my students understand what the equal sign truly means. Thank you also for the link to National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

    1. Isn't the NLVM amazing???! Thanks for coming by, Kristine!

  2. I loved this series Janaye! I got so much out of it when you first published it. Are you coming back to 4th soon? ;)

    Teaching in Room 6

    1. Hahaha, will NOT be returning anytime soon! ;)

  3. Who would have thought that a little sign like this = would throw kiddos completely off? Well it does mine! Especially when they suddenly see this ___=3+4 or something like it! What I hate about our program is that it will be teaching a skill and suddenly change how the problems look to something like that above. Ridiculous! This needs to be taught to first graders before they see it! Needless to say it makes that lesson last a lot longer. The equations on either side also throw them off. Your suggestions and insights here are great for helping me find a better way to help them out! Thanks!
    Mrs. Landry's Land of Learning

    1. Thank you SO much for sharing your thoughts!!!

  4. I had read about this somewhere a few years ago and it was definitely an "AHA" moment for me. Since then, I have been having this discussion (repeatedly) with my 4th graders and it has made a world of difference! Thanks so much for the great ideas!

    Mrs. Laffin's Laughings

    1. That's great! Thank you for sharing and for coming by! :)