Maths - Finding a way in

16th March 2012 at 00:00
Introduce algebra as a `foreign' language children can master

Trying to find accessible routes in for pupils is perhaps a more pertinent problem for us than for teachers of other subjects. Second World War history is full of stories with which to spark pupils' interest, but with maths, as the level of abstraction grows, so too can the problem of finding a "hook" to draw pupils in.

It is easy enough to think about a dynamic story to introduce bearings (a series of scuba diving lessons I once took is my yarn of choice there), but harder when it comes to algebraic processes.

Recently, I have been experimenting with introducing algebra as a language. By starting the lesson in my own rudimentary French or Italian, I encourage my pupils to think about the languages they already study and then to see algebra as another "foreign" language that they need to learn - a language understood perhaps more widely than any other, as it is read almost universally.

I might then make the point, if only to stir some reaction, that algebra is a language in which no poetry is possible. With algebra there is no metaphor or simile. In algebra, once you have understood the syntax, everything means exactly what it means and nothing else.

This leads the discussion on to the subject of "false friends". In French it would be logical to combine the word plein (meaning full) with the conjugation je suis to say "I am full". I share a story of saying this at the end of a meal while on a French exchange and being greeted with laughter. "Je suis plein" actually means "I'm pregnant".

False friends are not possible in algebra, but this does not mean mistakes in "translation" cannot be made. Pupils need to understand that convention has decreed that 2x means two lots of x, while x2 means x lots of x. The placement of the 2 is important and changes the meaning.

Pupils find it encouraging to realise that, like all languages, fluency and grammatical accuracy come with practice. To begin with, we may need to "translate" each group of terms into English and then back again, but after a while we can begin to think in the new language.

It may take a while, but here's hoping that there will be more "cela, est facile" and less "je ne comprends pas", even if "What the hell is Sir on about?" takes a little longer to eradicate.

Kester Brewin is a maths teacher and consultant with BBC Education

What else?

Turn numbers into words with Tristanjones' quick-fire algebra expressions starter.

Check whether pupils have got the algebraic lingo with jkay's matching card game.

From the forums

If you're having trouble getting pupils interested in algebra, take a look at a conversation on the TES maths forum about how to make it fun.

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