Review: Algebra Survival Guide

I recently posted a list of options for math beyond Singapore 6B. My younger, 10, finished that milestone a few months back, and I gave him some choice of what to pursue next. He selected The Algebra Survival Guide and The Algebra Survival Guide Workbook, understanding that they would not be a substitute for a full Algebra class but rather serve as an introduction. He agreed to that condition, so we began about two months ago. He was thrilled. I was satisfied. That’s about as good as it gets around here.

The Algebra Survival Guide, by Josh Rappaport, contains 12 chapters of largely pre-algebra topics. Broken down into bite-sized morsels, Rappaport explores mathematical properties, negative numbers, orders of operation, absolute value, exponents, radicals, and factoring. All those subjects are taught with variables and real numbers, but the real “algebra” part of the book doesn’t begin until halfway through the book, when he addresses factoring polynomials before moving on to canceling, equations, coordinate planes, and finally (though briefly) word problems.

For the most part, the Algebra Survival Guide breaks up those first concepts into page-long mini-lessons. Generally, the pages go beyond the “how to do this” and introduce why a property or process works. I like this. While there are times where memorization is a must, I’d rather math be deeply understood and utterly reproducible by one’s own mind and hand. Understanding how math works allows a person to do this. It’s a bit early to see if this understanding will stick,and he’s moderately mathematically intuitive, so I don’t know how much to attribute to the methods in the book, but I can say with certainty that this book does more than introduce rules to memorize.

Ironically, the book is also rule-heavy. In the process of breaking topics down into rather small parts, the author creates more rules than I recall from teaching my older son the same material in Jacobs’ Algebra.  In the section on negative numbers, these rules became burdensome, so we simply skipped those sections and moved on, after assuring he could do the problems themselves. The rules were actually a barrier to his intuition, so away they went. For a child struggling, these might be helpful and support understanding, but for my son, they got in the way.

What’s missing is the why of algebra. Until the final chapter on word problems, there is not a single example or explanation as to why anyone would bother moving all these numbers and variable around.  We stopped using the book near the end of the factoring section. I’d been growing restless with the teaching of technique in a vacuum, but he was progressing well and learning a good deal of the pre-algebra that Singapore Elementary Mathematics lacked (and saves for the secondary levels). Midway through a lesson on factoring polynomials, he asked the question: “Why would I do this?” With all the book had taught, there had not yet been one equation to solve, one word problem to ponder, or even one substitution of a number for a variable to consider. The “why” was missing.

I went to a bookshelf and pulled out Jacobs’ Algebra and searched for the section on factoring polynomials. We read through an example about a human cannonball’s trajectory. We talked for a while, and I realized that we needed to move back to math with context. He agreed readily, and we returned the Algebra Survival Guide to the shelf. Later that day, we ordered the first set of Singapore’s Discovering Mathematics series, per his request. He’s a creature of habit, and Singapore worked well for him. It’s worth a try.

I’m not sorry we spent the two months on the Algebra Survival Guide. It provided instruction on number of algebra and pre-algebra techniques with clear examples. It is designed not to be a full Algebra course but rather a support. It would serve quite well in this role. The text alone provides scant opportunity to practice the skills taught. Each one page lesson ends with four or five problems to solve, with the answers upside down just and inch or two away. Therefore, we used the Algebra Survival Guide Workbook for supplemental practice. For each page in the text book, the workbook offers ten to thirty problems for further practice. This was more than plenty, given the small bites in which the material was taught, but when we needed it, more problems were available. The workbook problems are rather cramped onto the page, with short lines for answers and no room for working solutions. This shortcoming was becoming more of an issue as he progressed through the book, and it does nothing encourage the student to show one’s work.   However, the book pairing was quite successful for what I desired as well – it served to introduce some topics missing from his knowledge bank in a palatable, gentle way. Mission accomplished.

On the positive side, the Algebra Survival Guide and workbook are easy understand, occasionally humorous, and fairly painless in their presentation of pre-algebra and the mechanics of working equations. They do incorporate the logic behind the mathematical concepts they introduce. They’re also inexpensive, with only the $10 workbook being consumable.

The chief drawback is the lack of context for learning algebra. Word problems make up the last chapter, but the approach is formulaic and is likely to do little to support a working understanding of algebra or help the user appreciate the skill they’ve learned much less an enjoyment for the beauty of mathematics.  Additionally, my 42-year-old eyes (which do not yet require reading glasses) found the font less than easy to read, especially the portions of small, fine print that explain why the various rules work. My son found my challenge amusing while I was just annoyed.

Would I use it again? Probably not. My son made great gains over these past two months, the largest being that he became comfortable with the idea of algebra. As I survey the other choices on our shelves and await the start of the secondary Singapore series, I know there are better choices out there — choices that support serious mathematical study while maintaining a humorous side. Ah, well. We have plenty of time to explore those materials while taking the next steps that Singapore has to offer.

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