Confession: Manipulatives made me nervous. In my first years as a teacher, I basically ruled out anything that would require additional classroom management, so no algebra tiles would be found in any of my lessons. I think more than anything, though, I didn’t completely understand them. In fact, when I was a student, my teachers didn’t use them, so I didn’t think they were necessary. Needless to say, I was wrong!
You can read about how we use algebra tiles to teach solving equations here.
1. ALGEBRA TILES Make Abstract Concepts Concrete
In researching why algebra tiles are so vital for students, I came across this article. The author states, “If children are introduced to abstract concepts before they have a solid basis for understanding those concepts, they tend to resort to memorization…which is not a solid foundation for further learning.” I couldn’t agree more! Memorization does not further students’ mathematical understanding, which restricts their flexibility in problem solving application.
Solving for x is abstract for a student new to solving equations. Similar to students using counters to make sense of addition in elementary school, or students using number lines to make sense of integers, algebra tiles make solving equations, combining like terms, or factoring polynomials a visual process.
2. THEY Reach All Learners
I hear and I forget – I see and I remember – I do and I understand. –Confucius
Most people learn new information three different ways: auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. Through my years as a teacher, I would ask myself if I was relying too much on one method and try to change it up if need be. Algebra tiles engage two out of three of these learning styles – primarily auditory and kinesthetic learners – but you could argue, with the correct discourse routines in your classroom, that they also engage an auditory learner.
These manipulatives emphasize a mathematical process over memorizing steps. Solving equations involves many steps:
- Combine like terms
- Move variables to one side of the equal sign
- Move constants to the other side of the equal sign
- Use inverse operations to solve for x
Algebra tiles make sense of all of those steps. Do you want students to understand why an equation must remain balanced? Use algebra tiles. Do you want students to understand what isolating a variable actually means? Use algebra tiles.
UPDATE: ALGEBRA I DIGITAL ACTIVITIES ARE NOW AVAILABLE!
3. THEY Support Many Skills
If you think algebra tiles are just for solving equations, here are all the other skills they support:
- Simplifying expressions
- Distributive property
- Integer rules
- Operations with polynomials
- Completing the square
What skills am I missing?
Don’t have any? Try this link for an online version.
If teachers can introduce tiles as early as sixth grade, just imagine how well they will be able to use them to tackle more complicated high school math concepts! Do you use them?