Math = Love: Teaching the Distributive Property

Friday, September 7, 2012

Teaching the Distributive Property

After having to reteach my Algebra 2 students the distributive property, I wanted to make sure my Algebra 1 students had a strong understanding of the distributive property. 

Looking online for ideas, I found the idea of teaching the distributive property using combo meals.

Distributive Property Using the Concept of a Combo Meal
I printed off pictures of various foods.  I cut them out and laminated them.  Then, I glued magnets to the back.  If you're wondering why I included apples and bananas with my fast food, well I can tell you it's not because I'm crazy.  Instead, I wanted to use these again whenever I teach combining like terms using the banana rule for combining like terms.

I started off by asking students what the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink were at a fast food restaurant.  I hoped they would suggest a combo meal.  While each class eventually did suggest that, many students instantly replied "The Dollar Menu."

Using my magnets, I created 2 combo meals.  We discussed how to write each combo meal as an algebraic expression.  Of course, the students had to criticize my choices of foods for the combo meals.  Apparently fritos are gross.  And, I've learned that nobody in their right mind would drink diet dr. pepper.

Distributive Property Using the Concept of a Combo Meal

I think my students thought that by making magnets of a certain food I was somehow endorsing it.  Honestly, I don't drink pop at all.  I only picked Diet Dr. Pepper because it wouldn't use as much printer ink as other brands would.  And, on top of that, I'm a vegetarian.  So, I don't eat hamburgers or hot dogs.

When we talked about how many hamburgers we would get if you ordered 5 combo meals, the students knew the answer straight away.       

When we moved onto problems that didn't involve food, things didn't go as well as I thought they should have.  Students could see why we would multiply everything in the combo meal by the number outside of the parentheses.  But, one student wanted to argue that since there was only 1 number outside of the parentheses, we could only multiply one of the terms inside of the parentheses by that number. 

I had students create a foldable with the four different variations of the distributive property.  I left my interactive notebook at school, so I don't have a picture of it at the moment.  It was nothing spectacular, but it was better than just writing down the four rules. 
Student example of left side page.  Students created their own combo meal to demonstrate the distributive property.  This student didn't draw all of their arrows, but their illustration was much more photo worthy.

Finally, I had students create their own combo meal on the left side of our INB.  Students had to draw a combo meal of their own.  Then, they had to write it as an algebraic expression.  Finally, they had to choose how many of that combo meal they wanted and use the distributive property. 


  1. I love this idea! Thank you for posting! I can't wait to try this in my Algebra I class.

  2. This is excellent! Can't wait to do this with my kids! Thank you for sharing! -6th Grade Math Teacher, Bronx, NY

  3. I LOVE this idea. I'm tutoring a student over the summer, and I wanted to give her a fun way to introduce algebraic properties. I really wanted her to feel comfortable about properties to give her the confidence in her future math classes. I will definitely use this. Thank you so much!

  4. Thank you for sharing! I'm an English teacher in High School and have recently been assigned to teaching 7th-8th grade combo class this fall. Having never taught math, I've looked online for ideas. I can't wait to use your idea! phew..thanks!

  5. this was amazing, and very kid and visual friendly. Thanks!

  6. this is a great idea, and using a smart board makes it super easy!

    1. I haven't tried it on the SMART Board yet. Great idea!

    2. Hi Sarah,
      I made a SmartBoard lesson to go along with your combo meal. I'm going to use it with my Pre-Algebra students this week. Thanks for the great idea.

      Jan at