Review: Jacobs Elementary Algebra

I wrote recently about options for math after Singapore 6B that we’ve tried or at least considered. While some of those resources found their way into my older son’s schedule while he was finishing Singapore, he felt strongly about immediately moving on to  “real” algebra. He was nine and sick of arithmetic. He was also fascinated with the algebra I used to solve some of the more perplexing parts of Challenging Word Problems 6, Singapore’s last book in their honestly named supplement series. When I couldn’t make those bar diagrams work, I’d resort to methods more familiar to me. He wanted in on those methods.

After a moderate amount of research and consideration, I went with an old-standby, Elementary Algebra by Harold R. Jacobs (ISBN 0-7167-1047-1). Written in 1979, this black-and-white text is written with humor and interest without the distracting color splashes and sidebars that grace more modern textbooks. Perhaps those brighter, busier features and are a draw for some learners, but for my son (with ADHD), the less chaos on the page, the better. The cartoon at the start of most lessons held up well over those decades and grabbed my distractable child onto the page while giving us both a chuckle. A bit of a laugh is a fine way to start a math lesson.

There’s plenty of substance after that laugh. In seventeen chapters with four to nine lessons each, Jacobs takes a learner directly into the use of variables while teaching order of operations, graphing, exponents, radicals, and other pre-algebra topics not covered in Singapore’s first six books. For a mathematically geared child, this seamlessly integrates those missed topics into algebra, obviating the need for a separate pre-algebra course. For my older son who is highly mathematically intuitive, this was fine.

In Elementary Algebra, Jacobs does far more than teach the procedural goings-on of algebra. He explains why it works. This is not a text of algorithms to memorize and practice, practice, practice. Rather this is a book that encourages deeper understanding of the math it contains and that connects math to the greater world.  This creates a rather lengthy book, and my son did take a year and a half to move through it. At then end, however, he had a fine grasp of algebra and could easily relate and apply it to other studies.

The structure of the book makes for easy teaching, and the supplemental teacher’s guide (A Teacher’s Guide to Elementary Algebra  ISBN 0-7167-1075-7) provides additional ideas for teaching if that’s desired. This is, however, not a scripted program. For the parent whose algebra is more than a bit rusty, this text could be a challenge. Or, perhaps, it could be an opportunity to polish those rusty skills and dress them up with deeper understanding. Even if one doesn’t require the additional teaching tips in the guide, this book contains the answers to three of the four sets of problems in each chapter. (One set has its answers in the back of the textbook.) For this, it was worth its price several times over.

Each lesson takes a mathematical idea and develops it in two or three pages of text, diagrams, and examples. I’m a believer in interactive math lessons, since I think there’s much to be learned from discussion about mathematics. My son and I would sit together, with me reading the chapter aloud and discussing examples along the way, generally with scrap paper or a white board by our sides. Each lesson concludes with four problem sets: one review, two sections to practice the ideas from the current lesson, and a fourth presenting a challenging problem or two often with a historical bent or mathematical twist.  We generally omitted the review and did the second set (first set of practice problems) together. He’d then do the third set (second set of practice problems) and fourth set (challenge problems) on his own. The following day, we’d review his mistakes and move on to the next lesson.

Each chapter ends with two sets of review problems, of which I’d assign one. One review could be used for a test, but we used tests from the accompanying Test Masters for Elementary Algebra (ISBN 0-7167-1077-3), which offers four tests for each chapter, additional exercises on a host of topics, four multiple-choice midterms and two multiple-choice final exams. We’d have been fine without this supplement, but this was in my more obsessive “afraid we’ll miss something” homeschooling days. It’s definitely an optional supplement.

Algebra was more than a math class for my son. It was a jump in organization, textbook use, and test taking. Up until algebra, he’d done most of his mathematical work in his head. Dysgraphia and impatience with process had led to me scribing most of his work until this point, and while I’d modeled showing work, algebra was the first time I insisted he show his work every time. It was a painful first many months. The math came easily. Writing down steps did not. A second challenge presented when working through problem sets. Writing answers on paper while referring to a page in a book proved difficult. Often the writing issues, visual tracking work, and organized step-writing proved more challenging than the math. Test taking was also new to him. I don’t test my boys much — generally I can tell what they know and what they don’t. Test taking increased his accuracy and gave him a reason to show his work, since even a wrong answer with a clear and largely correct trail could earn partial credit.

Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra prepared my older well for the math that followed: Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Precalculus flowed fairly easily from the lessons learned in that first algebra text. I enjoyed teaching from it, and he enjoyed learning from it. My understanding of some concepts deepened along the way. While it’s hardly the only algebra choice for the homeschooling family, Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra is a strong text based on sound pedagogy that prepares mathematical thinkers well for higher math.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Jacobs Elementary Algebra

  1. Thanks for the review. After trying a few different programs, we also ended up with Jacobs’ Elementary Algebra and are nearly finished. I’m not sure I’m as positive about it as you, but your review is very fair and insightful and I don’t know of anything else that would have been a better fit for us. We’re thinking of Jacobs’ Geometry next. My son’s 10 years old, 11 this summer, is very good at math but also doesn’t love it nowadays. Is that a reasonable next choice, or did anyone else have a better suggestions or advice for using Jacobs’ Geometry. Thanks.

    • You’re welcome. It’s been four years since we’ve used Jacobs, and while I did enjoy using it, I’m not convinced it’s what I want to use this second time around. My older son used the third edition of Jacobs’s Geometry which I’d be glad to review when I bring it back from whomever’s home I loaned it. It was fine, although neither my older nor I enjoyed Geometry as much as Algebra, but I have noticed a divide between those for many people — one just is more appealing that the other. The third edition contains less proofs to do than the second, and while the Geometry I took as a kid was heavily proof-oriented, I knew my dyslexic kid who was at that point less math interested would do better with the less proofy version.

      This is where I’m tempted to just continue with Singapore for NEM or DM. The integration of Algebra I, II, and Geometry would remove this question from my mind. Jacobs’ offers nothing further in a college-prep math curriculum. Algebra II choices didn’t thrill me. (He used Thinkwell’s only product at the time with Algebra II, College Algebra.) Thinkwell was okay, but it wasn’t the best choice for my son, then 11, to learn math. The math skills were way above the sit-and-listen-to-the-lecture skills.) Precalculus with trig was Foerster, which we both disliked for the most part. He’s off to a small University for Calculus in the fall, eliminating choosing a path for that subject.

      I assume you’ve not decided to take the AoPS route. My younger son (10 and progressing through Algebra Survival Guide with far more speed than I planned for my “let’s play with this a bit” book)is gaining enthusiasm for the subject, and I’m tempted to AoPS route in the fall. I just don’t know, but I am actively involving him in the choice.

      I doubt that answers your question, but it might give you a bit more information. I’ll try to get that Geometry book back and get that review going.

      Good luck!

  2. Funny — we ended up getting more serious about algebra for similar reasons. Those goofy bar graphs in Singapore totally confused us, and DD was practically pleading with us to let her try algebra to solve the problems. (I think she was 9 too.) She’d had a little experience just from the Ed Zaccaro books on writing simple algebra problems, and that was enough to convince her that writing an equation was much better than drawing those darn bars!

    • It’s nice to hear we aren’t the only ones that feel this way! My 8 year old (soon to be 9) has no interest in the bar graphs – just wants to use algebra to solve all of them. He loves AoPS, but I see it is really right at the threshold of his ability, so I question it. I’ll be thinking about Harold Jacob’s now. My son also struggles with copying problems down correctly and writing down the steps, or he writes so fast a 9 will look like a 7, and he will even mess up because of that!

  3. I am planning my daughter’s math curriculum for next year. I was considering skipping Singapore Math 6A/6B, and moving on to Elementary Algebra. Given your experience’ would you recommend doing that, or was it important to complete 6A/6B first?

    • I’d not skip 6A and 6B. While there is a fair amount of review in 6B (and I’m not a fan of review for review’s sake), there is new material in both. It’s been a sizable step moving from 6B to Discovering Mathematics 1A, and I’m glad we took the time to slog through. Even moving on to Elementary Algebra, it was worthwhile to finish 6B. The concepts in the Singapore made it a bit easier to move on to Algebra. You could likely compact what’s left of Singapore into a semester and easily cover all the new material. That’s what I did with my older.

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