Simplify Expressions Visually with Algebra Tiles – DIGITAL Activity

Looking for a visual lesson to help students understand combining terms and simplifying expressions? This FREE activity helps students visually simplify expressions with digital algebra tiles.

Simplify. Combine like terms. These words can be confusing for early algebra students who don’t have a solid foundation or understanding of what they mean in a math context. Hands on, visual models can help students move from confusing and abstract to sense making. One of my favorite tools for visualizing abstract algebra concepts is algebra tiles. But they can be expensive to purchase, cumbersome to store and a mess to clean up, wasting precious class time. So I prefer using digital pieces that students can move and manipulate in the same way, with no cost, no storage and no clean up! Read on to learn how to simplify expressions with digital algebra tiles and grab the FREE activity for your students.

Laying the Groundwork for Simplifying Expressions:

If your students have no exposure to algebraic expressions (meaning expressions that include variables), you may want to explain a few terms to them before you dive in with the algebra tiles.

I have found that the best way to prepare students to abstract ideas with variables is to remind them of what they know of operations with whole numbers.

For example, you might start with an expression such as “5 + 3 – 1.” They might think this is silly and way too basic, but if they don’t actually, truly understand what addition & subtraction mean, they will not be able to apply it to algebraic expressions.

Then you may want to ask about an expression such as “4 + 8 – 4” to discuss additive inverse. The goal is to move them to the point where they understand “zero pairs,” meaning +1 and -1 are equal to zero.

Lastly, to help them understand “like terms” I give them some expressions such as “4 apples + 3 oranges – 2 apples” and discuss finding the total number of apples and the total number of oranges as two separate quantities.

Another helpful analogy (especially if you have older students who will be working with terms with exponents) is to talk about last names such as Roberts and Robertson. Although they start out in the same way, the ending is different. So you cannot combine Roberts with Robertsons, because they are not in the same family (then relate this to x-values versus x-squared values).

After some initial discussions about zero pairs & like terms, you can dive into the visual lesson with algebra tiles.

Simplify Expressions with Digital Algebra Tiles:

This activity is created for google slides, so you can either project this to the whole class to discuss together or you can share a copy with each student in google classroom.

Ideally, students will be able to have their own copy, so they can move around the pieces and think through each expression on their own. But if they don’t have devices to use, maybe they can take turns while you lead a discussion with the whole class or a small group.

This set includes 10 different google slides to get students started. To simplify each expression, they begin by modeling what’s shown using the algebra tiles.

They can then move pieces around to group like objects or if they are able to simplify just by seeing the tiles together, they can then type the final, simplified answer in the box.

It’s pretty straightforward, but if students get stuck, encourage them to group like pieces together. They might also want to write out notes or additional drawings on scrap paper.

Depending on how you use this in your class, you may want to stop and discuss after each slide, or you might let students work until the end and then check/discuss all ten slides at once.

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Algebra Tiles Lesson as Intervention:

I like to use this type of activity as an opening activity or warm-up to a lesson to get a sense of students’ understanding and thinking.

However, this could also be a very useful resource for intervention if you have students who struggle or need additional work and review with understanding algebraic expressions.

In this case, I would use this in small group time (or as the “teacher” station if you use math stations), allowing students to slow down & share their thinking with you. This will give you a chance to see where they struggle and address misunderstandings or misconceptions.

Grab the Digital Algebra Tiles Activity for Google Slides:

If you’d like to give this a try with your students, use the link below to grab it FREE in my shop! Here’s what you’ll find in the download:

  • Access Link to make a COPY of the slides in your own google drive
  • Directions for sharing this with your students in google classroom
  • Answer key for all 10 slides

I hope this is a useful resource for you and your students, even if you’ve never used algebra tiles before!

{Click HERE to go to my shop and grab the FREE Simplify Expressions with Digital Algebra Tiles Activity}

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