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Archive for the ‘Pre-Algebra’ Category

Algebra Mistake #5: Combining a Positive and a Negative Number

So, you’d think that combining a positive number and a negative number would be a fairly straightforward thing, huh?

Well, unfortunately, a lot of students think it’s easy. They think it’s too easy. They think there’s one simple rule that guides them to the very same kind of answer every time. And that’s exactly where they get into trouble.

The truth is that combining a positive and a negative number is a fairly complicated operation, and the sign of the answer is dependent on a nmber of factors.

This video reveals a common mistake students make when tackling these problems. it also shows the correct way to approach these problems, using the analogy of having money and owing money to make everything make sense.

So take a look and see if this explanation doesn’t end the confusion once and for all.

And don’t forget: there are practice problems at the end of the video. Do those to make sure you’ve grasped the concept.
















Algebra Mistake #2: Does a x a = 2 x a?

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the benefits of analyzing algebraic mistakes, it’s time to explore a second common mistake. This one is so common that nearly every student commits it at least once on the road to algebra success.

As you watch the video, notice how by thinking hard about two expressions, we can think this mistake through to its very root, thus discovering the core difference between two similar-looking algebraic expressions.

And along the road, we’ll learn a general strategy for decoding the meaning of algebraic expressions. What I like about this strategy is that you can use it to understand the meaning of pretty much any algebraic expression, and you’ll see that it’s not a hard thing to do. In fact, it just involves using numbers in a nifty way.

Best of all, students usually find this approach interesting, convincing and even a bit fun. So here goes, Common Algebra Mistake #2 …


How to Combine Positive & Negative Numbers — Quickly and Easily

If you or someone you know struggles when combining numbers with opposite signs — one positive, the other negative — this post is for you!

To be clear, I’m referring to problems like these:

 – 2 + 7 [first number negative, second number positive], or

+ 13 – 20 [first number positive, second number negative]

To work out the answers, turn each problem into a math-story. In this case, turn it into the story of a tug-of-war battle. Here’s how.

In the first problem, – 2 + 7, view the – 2 as meaning there are 2 people on the “negative” team; similarly, view the + 7 as meaning there are 7 people on the “positive” team.

There are just three things to keep in mind for this math-story:

1)  Every “person” participating in the tug-of-war is equally strong.

2)  The team with more people always wins; the team with fewer people always loses.

3)  In the story we figure out by how many people the winning team “outnumbers” the other team. That’s simple; it just means how many more people are on that team than are on the other team. Example: if the negative team has 2 people and the positive team has 7 people, we say the positive team “outnumbers” the negative team by 5 people, since 7 is 5 more than 2.

Now to simplify such a problem, just answer three simple questions: 

1)  How many people are on each team?
In our first problem, – 2 + 7, there are 2 people on the negative team and 7 people on the positive team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the positive team, the positive team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the positives have 7 while the negatives have only 2, the positives outnumber the negatives by 5.

Now ignore the answer to the intro question, Question 1, but put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.




All in all, this tells us that:  – 2 + 7 = + 5

For those of you who’ve torn your hair out over such problems, I have good news …


But to believe this, it will help to work out one more problem:  + 13 – 20.

Here, again, are the common-sense questions, along with their answers.

1)  How many people are on each team?
In this problem, + 13 – 20, there are 13 people on the positive team and 20 people on the negative team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the negative team in this problem, the negative team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the negatives have 20 while the positives have only 13, the negatives outnumber the positives by 7.

Just as you did in the first problem, put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.




All in all, this tells us that:  + 13 – 20  = – 7

Now try these for practice:

a)  – 3 + 9

b) + 1 – 4

c)  –  9 + 23

d)  – 37 + 19

e) + 49 – 82

Answer to Practice Problems:

a)  – 3 + 9 = + 6

b) + 1 – 4 = – 3

c)  –  9 + 23 = + 14

d)  – 37 + 19 = – 18

e) + 49 – 82 = – 33

Josh Rappaport is the author of five books on math, including the Parents Choice-award winning Algebra Survival Guide. If you like the way Josh explains these problems, you will very likely like the Algebra Survival Guide and companion Workbook, both of which are available on  Just click the links in the sidebar for more information! 

Algebra Survival e-Workbook arrives TODAY!!

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Singing Turtle Press is delighted to announce that the companion Workbook for the Algebra Survival Guide is now available in eBook format.

Algebra Survival Workbook - electronic version

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How to Decrease Algebraic Mistakes – Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to help students make fewer mistakes in algebra.

No Mistakes

Let's Reduce Mistakes in Algebra!

So far I have introduced a form of notation I have developed, the double-slash, which looks like this:


and I have described some of the ways that students can use it.

I’ll continue the conversation by showing how this notation can help students combine like terms with greater care.


Common Algebra Mistake: Interpreting Negative Signs in Front of Parentheses

Certain areas of algebra are like pebbles in your shoe: looked at closely, they  are very small — tiny in the scheme of things — yet they are “oh-so-bothersome!”

As a tutor, I’ve long felt this way about negative signs before parentheses. It’s a small thing really, and it seems simple to grasp for those of us who get it. Yet students make so many mistakes when facing this situation; to them it’s quite irritating.

So there I was again, trying to help a girl see how to simplify the expression: – (– 5x + 3y – 7)

But this time I thought of something different, the word “opposite.”

I talked for a moment with my tutee about the idea of opposites, and then I started out like this:

Q:  So, what’s the opposite of black?

She replied:  White (with the teenage “that’s-totally-obvious-what are you-doing?-insulting-my-intelligence? accent)

I told her not to worry, this would lead back to the problem. Next I gave her two terms for which she were to find the opposite, as in:

Q:  opp (tall, happy)

She wrote:   (short, sad), still wondering …

And I continued:

Q:  opp (heavy, up)

She wrote:  (light, down), sighing.

Then I explained that in math we express the idea of “opposite” with nothing more than the negative sign.

Then I gave her some problems with the negative sign:

Q:  –  (cold, left)

A:  (hot, right)


Q:  –  (under, near)

A:  (over, far)

She was still giving me that “this-is-so-easy-I-could-die” kind of look. When I thought about that, I realized it was good!

Next I  explained that in math, just as in real life, there are opposites. And we find mathematical opposites by examining signs. For example, the opposite of 5 is – 5; opposite of – 3/4 is 3/4; opposite of – 3x is 3x; opposite of y is – y, and so on.

Then I gave her these problems:

Q:  – (+ 2x, – 5)

Still she was with me:  – 2x, + 5


Q:  – (– 4y, + 3x, – 6)

A:  + 4y, – 3x, + 6

The sighing was slowing down, finally. Then I simply told her that we’re going to “lose” the comma (how’s that for modern slang!), both in the original expression and in their answer. Then I gave her a new problem:

Q:  – (5a – 3a – 9)

This puzzled her a bit. So I explained that she needs to mentally group the term with the sign that lies to the left. And that if no sign is showing, as for leading positive terms, she needs to mentally insert the invisible positive sign:  5 becomes + 5;  2a becomes + 2a. Once she got that, she was able to proceed:

Q:  – (5a – 3a – 9)

A:  – 5a + 3a + 9

And so on … one success after another. The concept was sticking. And best of all, she had a conceptual framework — the concept of opposite — that she could “lean against” any time she got stuck.

The longer I tutor the more I realize that this kind of conceptual framework — a story or concept we know from everyday life, which relates to the algebra in a direct way — is a big key to helping students grasp algebra. I use these kinds of stories in my book, the Algebra Survival Guide, providing stories we know from everyday life, which serve as analogies that show how the math works. For example, in the Guide I use a “tug-of-war” analogy to show how you solve problems like:  – 3 + 8.

– 3 + 8

Tur-of-War Teaches – 3 + 8

I’ve had so much success with this “story”-approach to algebra that I am working on an eBook that provides a whole litany of stories that work for algebra. It is fun to work on, and kids like this approach because it gives them a new way — an everyday way — to relate to the math.

So in any case, my suggestion is that when you teach or review the concept of negative signs before parentheses, you might just try the “opposites”  approach and see how it works with your students.

How to Find the LCM – FAST!!!

Ever need to find the LCM (same as the LCD) for a pair of two numbers, but you don’t feel like spending two hours writing out the multiples for the numbers and waiting till you get a match.

Of course you need to do this — a lot!  Example:  whenever you add fractions with different denominators you need to find the common denominator. That is the LCM.

Here’s a quick way to do this.

The only way to teach this is by example, so that’s what I’ll do — by finding the LCM for 18 and 30.

Step 1)  Find the GCF for the two numbers.

For 18 and 30, GCF is 6.

Step 2)  Divide that GCF into either number; it doesn’t matter which one you choose, so choose the one that’s easier to divide.

Choose 18. Divide 18 by 6. Answer = 3.

Step 3)  Take that answer and multiply it by the other number.

3 x 30  =  90

Step 4)  Celebrate …

… because the answer you just got is the LCM. It’s that easy.

Note:  if you want to check that this technique does work, divide by the other number, and see if you don’t get the same answer.


PRACTICE:  Find the LCM (aka LCD) for each pair of numbers.

a)  8 and 12
b)  10 and 15
c)   14 and 20
d)  18 and 24
e)  18 and 27
f)  15 and 25
g)  21 and 28
h)   20 and 26
j)   24 and 30
k)  30 and 45
l)  48 and 60


a)  8 and 12; LCM =  24
b)  10 and 15; LCM =  30
c)   14 and 20; LCM =  140
d)  18 and 24; LCM =  72
e)  18 and 27; LCM =  54
f)  15 and 25; LCM =  75
g)  21 and 28; LCM =  84
h)   20 and 26; LCM =  260
j)   24 and 30; LCM =  120
k)  30 and 45; LCM =  90
l)  48 and 60; LCM =  240

Once you learn this trick, have fun using it, as it is a real time-saver!

Josh Rappaport is the author of the Algebra Survival Guide and Workbook, which comprise an award-winning program that makes algebra do-able! The books break algebraic concepts down into manageable chunks and provide instruction through a captivating Q&A format. Josh also is the author of PreAlgebra Blastoff!, which presents an engaging, hands-on approach (plus 16-page color comic book) for learning the rules of integers. Josh’s line of unique, student-centered math-help books is published by Singing Turtle Press and can be found on