We have been learning about the meaning of the equal sign this week. It can be a challenging concept for first graders to understand, so teaching the equal sign and what it really means may also be a challenge. Even my math wizards look at me funny when I say that it’s true that any number is equal to itself. “Yes, 5 = 5! I’m telling you the truth.” Here are some things that I use in my classroom to help teach this concept of the equal sign.
What does the equal sign mean?
Before teaching the equal sign, we need to have a baseline of its meaning. When using the equal sign, whatever is on the left must be equivalent to what is on the right of the sign. Cambridge Dictionary1 states that the equal sign is “…used to show that two things are the same in value, size, meaning, etc.”
Now that we have a baseline understanding of the equal sign, let’s look at how to teach this concept to students.
Teaching the equal sign to young students
Using a balance is the best way to teaching the equal sign to kindergarten students. It is the most basic and hands-on manipulative way to work with the equal sign concept.
Use a large marker and piece of paper to write the equal sign symbol (=) and attach it to the center of the beam between the two pans. Also, it is very important to make sure to use the language “the same as” when using a definition of the equal sign.
Use like items to show an equation on both sides. Showing equations that are true and false teaches students how to problem solve to get the correct answers.
Let’s look at some specific resources to help you teach the equal sign to students.
Start with reading books to your students about the meaning of the word equal. Equal Shmequal not only teaches the meaning of the equal sign, but it also talks about what it means in art (symmetry), law (fairness), and team sports (number of players).
You Can Use a Balance uses the balance to show how to manipulate items to make them equal on both sides of the beam. These are just one example of each, fiction and nonfiction, books on the meaning of the word equal.
A number balance is a wonderful concrete representation of the equal sign. Have a few of these in your classroom and that way small groups may explore or use it in a math center.
To introduce the number balance, start the discussion with students’ schema–seesaws on the playground. It’s so much fun trying to balance it with feet our feet dangling in the air. To do this, you need someone who weighs about the same as you on the other side of the teeter-totter.
Below are links to some favorite online interactive number balance sites. They are free and great to display for a whole class, either in person or a great alternative for distance learning.
List of online interactive pan balances
Here are a few of my favorite videos on the topic of the equal sign. Again, make sure to use the language “the same as” when using a definition of the equal sign.
This next video is very engaging because it uses the music from a Justin Bieber song, “What Do You Mean?” Of course, the words are changed to “What does this [the equal sign] mean?”
I know Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, is usually the star of the show, but there’s something about Prairie Dawn. I like to think she grew up to be a teacher!
After students understand that both sides of the equal side must equal, start using this knowledge to make a friendly 10 to add. To make a 10, they must easily know the number pairs that make ten. Starting with 9 to make a friendly 10 is super easy to start!
You can find math centers and a super fun craftivity by clicking the image below. You’ll find Friends of Ten Memory Game, Snowball Fight, “Friendly 10” Snowmen Craftivity, and “Make Ten to Add 9” Matching Game.
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- Definition of equal sign from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press