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• Jessica Kaminski

Balancing Expressions in Elementary School

Have you hugged a Kindergarten or Grade 1 teacher recently? If you haven't, you might need to find one after reading this post. Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers lay the foundation for students in basic operations and number sense. These pivotal years help upper grade teachers accomplish so much. In fact, when an upper grade teacher asks me for support, a lot of times we end up going back to many of these skills that students may have missed during the early stages of learning.

One skill that is especially important lays the groundwork for algebra. It's the ability for students to understand how to use the equals sign and what it actually represents. When younger students are introduced to abstract symbols such as +, -, and = symbols, they can take them quite literally. That's why Jerome Bruner found that using concrete objects first was vital for student understanding.

Students who learn that addition is joining parts and subtraction is taking away objects begin to understand those operations in a conceptual way that will help them to visualize operations.

When they learn that the equals sign has a meaning too, they can begin using various operations to solve. I teach students to say "same as" when they first write any operation. We don't even utter "equals" until the "same as" becomes natural. Then, I introduce it as a synonym for "equals".

My word choice is very intentional. As students use this type of language, it carries over into other areas. Students will see that they can use this concept when they begin to determine whether two number sentences, or expressions, are equal. Beginning in Grade 1, students explore this idea and often get hung up if they are living in a concrete universe where operations cannot mingle. Students who show a more conceptual understanding are able to make the connection.

All of this intentional learning will help our students progress into algebra naturally. Students who understand the part-whole relationship and how inverse operations work across the equals sign. It's really amazing to watch and know that our early elementary teachers can take all the credit. (Remember, I said you may want to go hug one or at least tell them how much you appreciate them!)

If you are needing some additional practice in this skill, I want to share with you a free resource. Help students visualize balancing number sentences with this free download. Simply place the balances in a page protector and cut apart the cards. There are a variety to choose from to challenge each student. Then, have students solve and show how to solve. Use manipulatives and dry erase markers to make it accessible for students. (Sroll down to the form to instantly download.)