Algebra from Primary to Secondary
In the new (well it’s been taught for a few years now) primary curriculum for maths there was an interesting new addition: Algebra. In the past, I have taught it to those higher ability children in a roundabout way without being totally explicit that it was algebra as I did not want to scare them off. Algebra was seen amongst children as one of those topics that the tutors taught if you were going for the 11+ (grammar school entrance exams). I do remember teaching it a bit more explicit way back in the time of levels to my level 6 booster group (yes we did do such as thing in my last school), most of whom panicked as they had never really quite understood it when learning it for their grammar test and often froze when facing questions with ‘unknows’ (algebra) in them.
Fast forward 5 years and I have been back in Year 6 a while and wondering how best mathematically to introduce algebra. After careful thinking, I decided it was best to build up slowly from missing numbers in calculations to pictures representing numbers and then onto letters. I found that this approach in the class I was teaching worked well (even with my very bad drawings for pictures representing numbers). Children were very receptive and commented that ‘It’s just like using my number knowledge for pictures and letters’. Again, proving how important it is that children have secure and confident number knowledge.
Keeping algebra fun and linked to real life is not quite so obvious to 10 and 11-year-olds. They understood pictures – which could easily link to shopping for different items which all had different costs. However, letters and real life were not quite such an obvious link to real life. That was the question in the SATs paper last year linking the time it took to cook a chicken to letters so that children could prove that they could write a formula. And post-test, most children who talked to me about that question commented that their parents just read the back of the ‘ready roast bag’ and they never saw them doing maths….
For me, the hardest part of algebra for children has always been sequenced. If children see links between numbers they can continue patterns and find missing numbers but don’t get the relevance of finding the nth term. This I have found is all about confidence. So, if you build children up from spotting patterns, continuing sequences and then talk about how to explain a sequence you can make good links to writing formula. Again, this is the approach I have recently taken to this topic of algebra and it makes better sense to children than jumping in with find the 10th, 100th and then nth number in a sequence.
As a mathematician, I have always enjoyed simplifying expressions. This topic of algebra to be in straightforward and can be introduced early on in algebra to children. However, in the curriculum, this is saved until KS3.
All of my ideas and experience from above culminated in the creation of my latest app: Astro Algebra which both aims to teach children about different topics in algebra and be an enjoyable space-themed game! The app follows my logical thinking of building up each topic (almost with no mention of algebra) to grow the children’s confidence and then drip feeds in the algebra so that they develop a good understanding of that topic.
My current year 6 class, who have been the trialists, want to learn more algebra on their own so that they can become quicker and complete all the levels. The competitive edge and game element often results in the children overcoming the fear of algebra as they all just call ask ‘Can we play the space maths again?’. So to them, algebra is nothing complicated or a bit of maths they can’t do, it is just a new area of maths where they get to apply their number skills. With my app, most of them are starting to love the idea of algebra as it is ‘grown up and fun maths’ which they are no longer struggling with.
You can check out the app below: