For some students, learning algebraic expressions feels like drudgery, but it doesn’t have to be that way. These three activities will get your students moving, talking, and thinking deeply about algebraic expressions, all while having fun. They’re also a great way to practice or review skills that have already been introduced and explicitly taught.
3 Ways to Have Fun With Algebraic Expressions
1. Vocabulary Four Corners. Many students are overwhelmed by the prospect of translating a word problem into an algebraic expression. To help students feel confident recognizing keywords and appropriately converting them into numerical operations, you can introduce students to Vocabulary Four Corners.
In this version of Four Corners, you invite all students to move around the room based on a given vocabulary word. First, designate each corner of your classroom as an operation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Next, have all students stand behind their desks. Then, present students with a key vocabulary word and instruct them to move to the corresponding corner of the room. Once students have selected a corner, you can give them time to discuss their choice in groups and then call on a few students to share their thinking with the class.
This activity is a great way to help students review keywords while getting active in the classroom, moving around, and having a chance to talk in groups. If you want to make the activity more challenging, you can ask students to explain their thinking by making up sample story problems that use the given keyword.
2. How’d You Do It? This next activity is a great way to help students recognize the multitude of possibilities when working with algebraic expressions. There are a few different ways to implement this activity, depending on the amount of time you want to spend, but the basic structure is this: You present students with an algebraic term, and they come up with as many different algebraic expressions as possible that would simplify to your given term.
One way to do this is with a gallery walk. First, you need to post chart paper around the classroom and put one term on the top of each piece of paper. Next, split students into small groups and assign each group a piece of chart paper. Then, give students a set amount of time to spend writing their algebraic expressions on the chart paper before moving on to the next piece of paper as a group.
Once every group has had a chance to work on each piece of paper, you can then give students additional time to walk around the room and look at all of the expressions. Students may notice patterns in the types of numbers or operations their classmates used, or they may identify expressions that do not simplify to the given number. Students should share these thoughts within their small groups and then with the class at large.
If you don’t want to use a gallery-walk approach, this same activity can work with small groups seated around the classroom. You can provide students with a term and a given amount of time to work together to come up with as many expressions as possible. You can then have groups share their expressions. If you want to make the activity more of a competition, you can even assign points for the numbers of unique expressions each group finds.
This activity helps students get creative and recognize how many possibilities exist when creating equivalent expressions. Depending on how difficult you want to make the activity, you can set additional parameters: Students must use negative numbers, students must use at least three operations, students must use division, etc.
An example of what students might come up with follows.
Given Number: 3x
- 3(9x – 8x)
- 1x + 2x
- 12x – 9x
- 15x / 5x
- (3x + 9x) / 4x
3. Equivalent Expression Stories. This last activity is another great way to have students practice recognizing and creating equivalent expressions. For this activity to work, you’ll need to split students up into groups and, ideally, have them seated in columns or rows.
The first student in each column/row will be given a piece of paper with an algebraic expression on it. They will then write an equivalent expression underneath it and fold the top of the paper down. Then, they will pass the paper back to the next student. The second student won’t be able to see the original expression, only the one written by the first student.
The second student will then repeat the process: Write an equivalent expression, fold the paper, pass it back. Once the paper reaches the last student, you will collect each group’s work and show each equivalent expression story to the class.
Students can then discuss how each expression changed as it was passed, whether each expression remained equivalent to the original one, and any patterns they noticed. Similarly to the “How’d You Do It?” activity, you can scale up the difficulty by setting parameters around what students should use in their expressions.
A sample expression story might look like this:
Original expression: 5x + 3y
- 2x + 1y + 3x + 2y
- 5(x + y) – 2y
- 10x – 5x + 3y
- x + x + x + x + x + y + y + y
There are plenty of ways to personalize math activities to best fit the needs and interests of your students, but these three activities provide a jumping-off point to get your students engaged and excited about algebraic expressions.