Saturday, December 2, 2023

How to Teach Algebra When You Count on Your Fingers


How to Teach Algebra 

When You Count on Your Fingers


I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke:

“There are three kinds of people, those who are good at math, and those who aren’t”

 Well, many of us homeschool moms are in the “aren’t” category. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot teach algebra!

You know how it goes. When you begin homeschooling your cute little preschooler, you start getting questions like these:


“But how are you going to teach Physics?”

“But certainly you’ll need to send her to public school for high school, right?”

“How will she learn algebra?”

“What about CALCULUS?”


I don’t know what possesses human beings to worry so much about every future possibility, but they do. Even though the Bible says not to (Luke 12: 22-26 )

We shouldn’t worry – but we should prepare. And we should be comforted. It is entirely possible to teach our children subjects that we don’t already know, and don’t excel in. And it is entirely possible for our children to become better at those subjects than we are – and for us to continue “teaching them” that material.

 I’m going to make a strange assertion – a student who is taught math by a non-mathematician has some advantages! Firstly, they learn how to figure out something they don’t already know – rather than just being spoon-fed by an expert. And second, a teacher who is not good at math has a better feel for finding a simple explanation than does a teacher who is an expert in math.

 So, what do I do, as a non-math person, to “teach” my child math? Lots of things! I teach her to research. I check her work for simple errors (like 2+5=9). I encourage her. I help her to stay focused. I help her find expert help when we both need it. I walk along side her as she learns. 

At this point, she is far beyond me in math (it’s been that way for a long time now) – but I’m still her “teacher.” And she’s still moving forward.

I have used this approach for all levels of mathematics – from early elementary up. Even though this article is labeled "Algebra" - it has also worked for higher levels of math - and lower levels of math.

Here’s what I do:

*Pray with my child at the start of each day for God’s Blessing on our work.

 *Find programs online that test my child and place her at the right level, then provide questions that teach from that point on (sometimes called “Self Leveling” materials). If you're not a "math mom," It MUST be a program that self-grades. (see below for suggestions)

* If I know my child needs a certain level, then I can select a platform that teaches just that level.

* If a platform becomes too frustrating for her, I try a different one for a while (but I don’t stop too easily – all lessons are frustrating sometimes!)

 Excellent platforms we have enjoyed over the years include:

Khan Academy We enjoyed K-8, and occasionally use select lessons for higher grades. This is Common Core Aligned, so sometimes the methods get a little weird. Common core math does not focus on memorization of math facts, which is a vital skill for math success. If you use a Common Core aligned math program, make sure you plug in some math games like and others (see below) to help polish up the memorization of facts.

Prodigy (K-8) Read about our experience here

IXL (All levels – excellent platform)

InstantCert (dual enrollment/college) & (dual enrollment/college)

 I have my daughter simply work at the computer, doing the provided questions. I require a certain number of answers – or sometimes correct answers per day, depending on her current needs (I don’t stress over “wrong” answers – they’re evidence learning is happening : ) 


you don't have to buy the fancy calculator!

 Try these online calculators. They're free, and have had everything we've needed throughout all levels of Math

Desmos - suitable for exams

The following are great, but in some instances might provide too much "help" and might not be great for exam day, depending on the setting:

Wolfram Alpha





If she gets to a question, and does not know how to do it, this is how I help:

1)      Look at the question, and see if I know how to do it and can explain it.

2)      Read or watch the provided tutorial or explanation provided on the platform, and see if we can figure it out together. This is VERY valuable instruction for her, as I am modeling how to learn math!

3)      If I cannot figure it out from the provided explanation or tutorial, I copy the name of the lesson or unit (for instance, “adding fractions with unlike denominators”) and paste it into the Youtube search bar. I add the words “For kids” or “Easy” after the words I pasted. This brings up a selection of MANY videos that explain just how to do the type of math she is working on. We watch a few of them together & find one that we like. If a video is confusing, boring, or poorly explained, we just skip to the next one. Over time we’ve developed favorite channels or teachers. For instance, “Math Antics” has lots of great videos for Elementary, Jr. High math & early Algebra.(Of course, if we need a written explanation rather than a video, we just type the same words into our regular search engine and look for a good article). Here is my Pinterest Board of Favorite Math Videos

4)      If she needs to memorize a formula or method, she types the name of what is needed in the Youtube search bar, and adds the word “song” – she gets a selection of formulas set to music for easy memorization. Some are much better than others – we take a few minutes to find a good one. Then we sing it together enough times for her to memorize it. I have a collection of good songs that have worked for us on my Pinterest Board of Math Songs.

            Here is a small sample of some of our favorite songs for Algebra (rest assured, you'll find

            many more once you know to look for them!) :

A fun one for memorizing polynomials

The Quadratic Formula 

The Sums and Differences of Cubes 

 5)      Then, we go back to the questions, and try again. Persistence pays off

 6)   Sometimes, you need to "Be the Duck."  Computer programmers often keep a rubber ducky on their desk. If they have code that isn't working, and they cannot find the bug, they explain their code, line by line, out loud, to the Duck. And, as they explain it, they see their own mistakes. Many days, I AM the duck for math class! I don't understand it, but my daughter understands it better when she explains it, aloud, to me.

6)      If, together, we still cannot figure it out – and we’ve spent a good amount of time trying, we call in the “big guns” – for us, this is Daddy when he comes home from work (math is his thing). But, not every family has a Daddy who is good at math. If that's the case, find a friend from Church or a neighbor who is a retired math teacher, or a professional tutor would also work. I find if we do the above steps ourselves, the “big guns” were really only really needed a handful of times - total. 

In addition to the above steps, we use online math game platforms or apps. 

For more games, check out my Pinterest Board on Math Games. Here are a few favorites:

Dragonbox is a great Algebra introduction, to help with basic algebra concepts, and helps make algebra methodology more natural for the student. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Prodigy was priceless in Elementary is great for math memorization as well as practice disguised as video games.Use it to help with automaticity at any age.

Just one more note:

Very early in my homeschool teaching days, I found an excellent bit of encouragement in math from Art Robinson, creator of the Robinson Curriculum. Some of his children went to college for math-intensive courses in their mid-teens. He aimed for his kids to do about 2 HOURS of math a day. Although I did not use his curriculum, or follow all his methods, I did find this bit of advice to be quite valuable. We don’t usually spend 2 hours on math – but some days we do! And, there are very few days on which we do 10-minutes-and-done. We tend to expect math to take some serious time.