Maths - More algebra, please

13th April 2012 at 01:00
Start with the basics to dispel the myth that it's too difficult

The word "algebra" has its roots in the Arabic jabara, meaning "reunite" or "restore". But in English, algebra is often synonymous with "complex and perplexing". Yet it is not, as it is sometimes seen to be, elitist. At a basic level, it is an effective form of shorthand; at an advanced level, it is a vehicle for expressing and examining theories and discoveries.

We should be doing more algebra in primary schools and we should be promoting algebra positively and confidently. Very simple algebra is just a natural extension of simple number work. For example, in the following find the value of y:

- 4 + 5 = y - Answer: y = 9

- 12 - y = 8 - Answer: y = 4

If they have been taught well, young children will readily complete such a task, unconcerned with what it is called; only those who have learned to fear algebra will freeze. Sadly this is all too common among teenagers, who often panic when presented with similar examples; seeing letters and recognising it to be algebra, they assume it to be beyond them.

Primary pupils, at ease with the algebra above, can confidently cope with more algebra basics.

For example:

- n + n + n + n is the same as 4 lots of n or 4 x n.

- 4 x n is conventionally shortened to 4n.

- n x 4 is also shortened to 4n, as n x 4 is the same as 4 x n and the convention is to write the number first.

Writing expressions is easy when pupils know that any lower-case letter can be used to represent the unknown number. For example:

- Add 5 to an unknown number - Answer: n + 5

- Subtract 3 from a number - Answer: n - 3

- Multiply a number by 10 - Answer: 10n

Because algebra can (eventually) become complex, many teachers and parents shy away from it altogether. Playing the piano can become highly intricate and some football skills can be extremely challenging, but few of us would shrink from encouraging our children to take part. So why, as a nation, do we actively discourage our children from properly engaging with algebra just because one day it could become quite tricky?

So let's do it. More algebra, please. Let's banish the fear and ensure that it is universally well taught.

Naomi Sani has taught for 18 years in both the primary and secondary sectors. She is also a freelance consultant and an Inset provider. @naomi_sani


Algebra can be easier when letters are given meaning. Try shivabob's paperclip activity to give those symbols a real context.

Enjoy a colourful maths activity with tafkam's algebra hunt.


Is half the population really woefully bad at maths? Share your views.

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