How to Get Your Child Ready for Algebra

Two Methods:Determining Your Child's Readiness for AlgebraPrerequisites for Algebra

Algebra is a branch of mathematics that studies numbers by representing unknown quantities with letter variables, as well as the mathematical operations applied to them. It is the gateway for students to higher mathematics and is all too often a stumbling block for them, not just in terms of school, but also in terms of being able to get into a good college and study for their desired career. The importance and pressures of algebra, and mathematics in general, motivate many parents to look for ways to help their children prepare for algebra, not always with an understanding of the skills their children should have mastered to be ready for algebra.

Method 1
Determining Your Child's Readiness for Algebra

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    Consider your child's age. Some educational researchers, such as Dr. Herman Epstein, believe the human brain has periods of rapid development and periods where little development occurs, one of which coincides with a physical growth spurt during the ages 14 to 17, the high school years.
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    Consider your child's level of maturity. Your child should show some general problem-solving skills, be able to draw conclusions from logical reasoning, and be able to organize projects.
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    Be aware of the math curriculum in your child's school district. Historically in American schools, algebra was introduced in either the 9th or 10th grade. Due to political pressures resulting in part from the No Child Left Behind Act, many school districts have formally introduced algebra in the 8th grade, with preliminary concepts taught in 7th grade.
    • If you homeschool your child, look at the curricula from several districts in your immediate area for a better handle on when might be an appropriate time to start preparing your child for algebra.
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    Assess your child's readiness for algebra. You can do this in 1 of 2 ways:
    • Through a formal algebra readiness test. Many school districts offer algebra readiness tests as a means of placing students in study tracks for their high school years. These tests are usually offered during a student's middle school years. Organizations such as College Preparatory Mathematics and Sylvan Learning offer online or downloadable algebra readiness tests.
    • By regularly reviewing your child's math homework. Use the information presented under "Prerequisites for Algebra" along with an understanding of your school district's curriculum to monitor your child's progress in developing the preliminary skills for learning algebra.
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    Introduce algebraic concepts to your child. Many of the concepts taught in algebra can be presented to children at a younger age if done in a manner appropriate to their age. For example, you can introduce the concept of variables by asking your child what number added to 6 makes 10.

Method 2
Prerequisites for Algebra

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    Understand and write various number forms. Your child should be able to read, write, compare, and convert between the following forms:
    • Integers. Integers include counting numbers (1, 2, 3, etc., which are positive integers), whole numbers (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.), and their negative value counterparts (additive inverses, -1, -2, -3, etc.).
    • Fractions. Fractions are written as one number (the numerator) over another (the denominator), separated by a line, such as 1/2. Your child should understand and identify proper fractions (which have a numerator smaller than the denominator, such as 2/3), improper fractions (which have a numerator as large or larger than the denominator, such as 3/2), and mixed numerals (which combine an integer with a fraction, such as 1 1/2).
    • Decimals. Decimals are another way to express fractional values using a decimal point instead of a fraction bar. Your child should be able to understand decimal place value (that 0.5 is larger than 0.05 because 5 tenths is more than 5 hundredths) and be able to convert decimals to fractions and vice versa.
    • Percents. Percents are an expression of numeric values as parts of 100 ("per cent"). Your child should be able to convert between percent and decimal values for the same number.
    • Exponents. Exponents are superscripted (raised) numbers used to represent how many times a base number is used as a factor in multiplication. They are sometimes referred to as "powers." Exponents can also be written as normal digits after a caret (^) when superscripting isn't possible. Your child should be able to convert numbers raised to powers to their equivalent values, such as 4 ^ 2 = 16 and 10 ^ 3 = 1000.
    • Scientific notation. Scientific notation is writing a large numeric value as a decimal multiplied by 10 raised to a power. The number 1,600,000 would be written in scientific notation as 1.6 x 10 ^ 6.
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    Calculate numbers in all the forms described above. Your child should be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers, fractions, decimals, percents, and in scientific notation, with some of the following related skills:
    • When adding or subtracting fractions, your child should be able to convert fractions into equivalent forms so that both terms have the same denominator. When multiplying fractions, your child should be able to multiply the numerators together and the denominators together and reduce the result to lowest terms.
    • When multiplying decimals together, your child should be able to place the decimal point correctly in the product. When dividing one decimal by another, your child should be able to correctly place the decimal point in the quotient by moving the decimal points in the dividend and divisor the same number of places to the right to make the divisor an integer.
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    Be able to factor numbers. Factoring is the ability to identify a number as the product of 2 or more smaller numbers (factors). Your child should be able to identify factors for any given number and identify prime numbers, which are divisible only by 1 and themselves. In addition, your child should be able to understand and perform the following:
    • Greatest common factor (GCF). This is the largest number that can be divided evenly into 2 or more different numbers; for example, the greatest common factor of 12 and 20 is 4 (3 x 4 = 12, 5 x 4 = 20).
    • Least (or lowest) common multiple (LCM). This is the smallest number that is a multiple of 2 or more different numbers; for example, the least common multiple of 6 and 9 is 18 (3 x 6 = 18, 2 x 9 = 18).
    • Prime factoring. This is being able to express a given number as a product of prime numbers. For example, the prime factoring of 60 is 2 x 2 x 3 x 5.
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    Understand ratios, proportions, and rates. "Ratio" is the comparison of 2 quantities to each other, while "proportion" refers to the amount of an item against a whole. In a bowl of fruit with 3 apples and 5 oranges, the ratio of apples to oranges is 3:5 (also writable as 3/5), while the proportion of apples to all fruit is 3:8 (or 3/8). "Rate" is a ratio of 2 measurements, usually of different types, such as miles per hour, heartbeats per minute, or cycles per second.
    • Related to ratios and proportions are the concepts of odds and probabilities. Probability is a ratio of the desired outcome to all possible outcomes; the probability of getting heads on a coin flip is 1:2 (1/2), since a coin can come up either heads or tails. "Odds" is the ratio of the desired outcome to unwanted outcomes; the odds of getting heads on a coin toss are 1:1.
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    Identify and draw various geometric shapes. These skills are somewhat more of a prerequisite for geometry classes than for algebra, but they relate to the ability to recognize patterns in number sequences and other areas.
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    Measure and calculate the dimensions and properties of various geometric shapes. Your child should be able to use a ruler, compass, and protractor and should be able to find the following:
    • Perimeter: The total length of all the edges of a 2-dimensional object.
    • Area: The amount of space a 2-dimensional object takes up.
    • Volume: The amount of space a 3-dimensional object takes up.
    • Surface area: The total area of each surface of a 3-dimensional object.
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    Work with the Pythagorean theorem. The Pythagorean theorem states that the square of the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle (the side opposite the right angle) equals the sum of the squares of the length of the other 2 sides. This skill helps prepare your child not just for algebra and geometry, but trigonometry as well. Your child should be able to use this relationship to find the length of any side of a right triangle when the other 2 lengths are known and also identify whether a triangle is a right triangle if the lengths of all 3 sides are given.
    • Because finding the length of an unknown side involves calculating square roots, this is an opportunity for your child to develop skills using a calculator.
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    Collect, organize, and present information so others can understand it. Your child should have a rudimentary understanding of statistics (mean, median, mode, and range) and be able to read and create bar graphs, line graphs, and pie charts, as well as be able to plot points on a 2-dimensional grid.
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    Understand and analyze patterns. Patterns that show constant ranges of change (such as 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) relate to both algebra and geometry. Your child should be able to recognize the nature of a pattern and project what the next number in a numeric sequence will be.
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    Understand the concept of variables. Variables are unknown or varying quantities in equations represented in algebra by letters. This concept is often introduced several years before elementary algebra by using boxes or blanks to represent the unknown quantities. Your child should be able to understand the concept of variables in this format and be able to find the value of the unknown quantity.
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    Represent mathematical functions as equations and on graphs. A function is the relationship between an input number and a single, resulting output number. (If a function were defined as adding 7 to each number, 1 would be an input and 8 its corresponding output.) Your child should be able to calculate the output number for a given input number and function, build a table of input and output values for a given function, and construct a line graph from a table of input and output values.


  • Consider joining your school's PTA to keep abreast of changes to the math curriculum.
  • Work as closely with your child's teachers as your time and interest will allow. They can provide you with guidance in how to supplement your child's in-class math education at home.


  • Consider your motives for helping prepare your child for algebra. Your goal should be to help your child achieve his or her best, not what you perceive to be in his or her best interest. You should encourage your child, but not push your child into something he or she is not ready for.

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Categories: Algebra