Algebra is a milestone in math education — the foundation for every branch of math afterward. Therefore, students must be thoroughly comfortable with it in order to take on geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and so forth, just as they once had to practice multiplication tables until those became second nature.

But algebra can be confounding. Students who have learned, from arithmetic, to read math like the English language — from left to right, as a question leading in one direction to its answer — may find algebraic principles very difficult, at least at first. The idea of being given an answer with an incomplete question seems to undermine the most basic rules of reasoning that they have been taught to use. It is no wonder, therefore, that Palos Verdes Intermediate School spreads its algebra curriculum across three years.

In our after school tutoring program at the Study Hut, we use this language analogy in order to bridge the gap between elementary and middle school math. Our goal is that algebra should not seem so new and foreign to students — that even though solving for a variable in an equation may feel like doubling back — like working in the wrong direction — algebra is still derived from the same rules they have already learned.

Our tutoring sessions are all one-on-one, so of course we tailor our programs to students’ needs. For sixth grade students first adjusting to the idea of algebra — of seeing letters and numbers in the same context, of finding unknown numbers — we work hard to instill the basic concepts so that students know why algebra exists, and thus why they study it. For students further along, we emphasize the role of the number line and Cartesian (x,y) plane, that is, as visual aids, to help students deal comfortably with more than one variable at once. And finally, for students approaching geometry, we help demystify more advanced topics, such as linear inequalities and systems of equations. As they head toward high school math, we can also teach them how to conquer the toughest word problems, to untangle and reduce them into simple equations with clear solutions.

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