Translation Is Hard

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Algebra isn't hard. You've been doing it from the beginning. So why is it that math is so difficult for some students?

I firmly believe it's because they haven't learned the language of math. Even babies know that if you put one teddy bear next to another teddy bear, close the door and open it again, there should be two teddy bears there. The difficulty is teaching a child that it can also be expressed in the language of math as 1+1=2.


Does the image above look like an equation to you? No, because it's not. But it could be if we translated it into one, or made it a word problem: How many bears are in the picture above? Show all work.

All of math is the same way, you just keep learning more and more vocabulary as you progress. Addition means "put them together/find the total." Factor means "break them into smaller numbers with division." The problem is that we can forget our vocabulary (much like I've forgotten almost all the Spanish I learned in high school). ∃ π ∀ {1:3} are all just as foreign as + - x ÷ to a new student.

So really, when you're teaching a student math, you're teaching them a language. You're training them to read this foreign script. You're conveying the meaning behind the symbols and sounds. And that is why I find we teach the same concept over and over again in the MathTacular DVDs: We teaching them that writing the equation this way ultimately means the same thing as the other.

1 + 1 = ?
2(1 + x) = 4

Bob saw Jill.
Jill's beautiful features were all Bob could think about as he attempted to soak up every aspect of this moment.

Same meaning... one just has more depth.

Math is easy. Learning the language can be tough. And, unfortunately, I still struggle with English sometimes too. Clever and cleaver are far too similar.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Expectant Father

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  1. Jill in Kentucky

    OK Luke, I feel like you are talking about me here:

    Jill's beautiful features were all Bob could think about as he attempted to soak up every aspect of this moment.

    My husband Bob agrees with your statement! :0)

    Oh, and algebra seems easy when you put in in teddy bear language.

  2. Craig and Heather

    Mathtacular is a wonderful teaching aid! Even my 3 YO likes to watch--and I know she and the older children are actually learning the information because the presentation resembles "real life".


  3. Ann

    You know, I've never thought of it this way. But, at the same time this is SO encouraging because I can see ways that my youngest kids are learning the "language" already. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Jenny

    Hi Luke,

    I just wanted to stop by and thank you for the link to Freemind. I hadn't heard of it before but I really like it. I appreciate you taking the time to share your wisdom with me.


  5. Luke

    Jill, that's awesome! I had no idea that your husband's name was Bob <smile>. And I do my best to make Algebra easy <smile>.

    Heather, thank you! Woo-hoo! I love hearing this. Yay! <smile>

    Ann, you are most welcome! Thanks for taking the time to comment and encourage me. I appreciate it. And may your kids continue to learn the language of math.

    Jennifer, you are most welcome! I'm always happy to share the tips and tricks I've learned with others. I love useful, free software <smile>.


  6. Heather the Mama Duk

    That's why we love Math-U-See so much. It uses the language early on and introduces basic algebra right from the start. As the kids move on in math there is no sudden "what does that mean" moment.

    Mathtacular makes a nice addition, too, to help it all make perfect sense.

  7. Heidi

    I just ordered the first Mathtacular DVD for my son who struggles with math. He is very visual/auditory and needs a story or context for the numbers. I think he will really enjoy the DVDs and I'm so excited!! My younger guys are much more number-oriented and they are going to learn so much right along with Levi. Wahoo!!

  8. Luke

    Heather, thanks for the endorsement <smile>.

    Heidi, I look forward to hearing about your experience with MathTacular. I always love reading about people who are watching it <smile>.


  9. Pingback: Is Math Confusing? Only If You’re Doin’ It Wrong | Sonlight Blog