FREE GAME for Learning Algebraic Expressions in Guided Math

I don’t remember Algebra being fun in school. I don’t remember any hands-on experiences for anything in Algebra–including expressions. So, when I began teaching Algebra I was determined to make it concrete-to-pictorial-to-abstract and, above all else, it was going to be FUN!

One of the ways I do this is by incorporating roaches, flies, and ladybugs into my Algebra guided math lessons and into my Tabor Rotation math stations. One of the Manipulative Station Activities is Excellent Expressions.

This activity uses cards to determine an algebraic expression, but makes creating and simiplifying the expressions a lot more interesting because the manipulatives are BUGS.

How to Play Excellent Expressions

Excellent Expressions is best played in teams and with partners. The manipulatives needed for this activity are ladybug buttons, plastic roaches, plastic flies, 2-color counters, and tablecloth napkins. Use ziploc bags with sliders to save time taking out and putting back items. Jumbo hefty bags are ideal for keeping the entire game together.

The sets of ladybugs should have 6 of a light color and 6 of a darker color. A small bag of two-color counters will represent the constants that may be pulled. I made the negative roaches and flies by painting a red stripe down their back.




Everyone lays out their picnic table/work mat and their piles of negative and positive insects. Two sets of partners each pull two term cards and place them in the center. All pairs race to see who can be first to create the expression using insects.


After creating the insect expression, students record the terms pulled, the expression created, and they combine like terms to simplify the expression.

Students record how they used the positive and negative insects to concretely experience the additive inverse property used in simplifying their expression. There’s also a place to write an equivalent expression using distributive or associative properties.

Differentiating the Understanding of Expressions

If you’re looking for an activity that differentiates instruction and engages students, Excellent Expressions is perfect! Students are using manipulatives to concretely experience creating and simplifying expressions. The students are creating their own paper and pencil tasks by pulling the cards and recording the expressions. The understanding of expressions is moving from the concrete (insects) to the pictorial (drawing on the recording sheet) to the abstract (writing the simplified expression and then finding an equivalent expression if possible).

Excellent Expressions Video & FREE Game Download

A How to Play Excellent Expressions video is on the GlennaTabor YouTube Channel. Download Excellent Expressions, Insects  and use it in your Tabor Rotation Math Stations, your guided math station, or with your entire class. Every secondary student who’s used the insects has loved learning algebra! The response of your class will be priceless! (There are more FREE activities in the FREE materials section of my website. Just join the Tabor Team–it’s FREE, too!)

The STEM/Real-World Connection of Expressions

Have you ever heard someone say, “When am I ever going to use Algebra in the real world?” Well, since the students created expressions using insects, let’s make the science and technology connection to what they created. Give the students the facts about ants and roaches. Then ask your students to determine which of expressions they created, playing Excellent Expressions, represents the most weight that could be carried.

If you want a good STEM connection to algebraic expressions created with roaches, take a look at the studies being conducted at Texas A & M with roaches that carry backpacks.

Yes, mechanical engineers and entomologists are working together to outfit 2-inch long cockroaches with tiny backpacks. Why? Roaches can have cam can move through buildings destroyed in an earthquake to help find survivors.The NPR article, “What Cockroaches with Backpacks Can Do-Ah-mazing,” is a good read and the videos of cockroaches with backpacks is worth the click.

More Useful Links and Tools

If your students need more practice with integers, the 24 Game Integer Version is an excellent tool. My students had to learn the integer rules to become faster at finding the ways to make a positive or negative 24.

George Alland’s article, “Algebra Teaching Tips,” in EducationWorld has some concrete ways to help students learn how to combine like terms in expressions. features a really helpful article on “Best Algebra Help Tips.” This article shares ideas for understanding expressions and many more algebraic concepts.

Keep a bag of “insects” handy. I travel with a bag of algebra manipulatives (including plastic roaches) in my carry-on bag. That way, when someone next to me on an airplane says, “I never really understood algebra,” I can whip out my roaches and begin to help them concretely understand why algebra is important.

The last time I shared with someone next to me it was an air marshal. We both survived the flight and he thought the roaches were awesome (and just a little creepy).