Activities to Help Your Students Understand the Equal Sign

Math is one of my favorite things to teach. Likely because we can actually take the skills learned in the classroom and apply them to real life. Yes, even those skills that our students are wondering when in the world they will use them. Some math concepts are harder to teach than others, especially new ideas that can be tricky to grasp. Teaching the equal sign and what it means is one of those, but don't fret! I've found a way to make it fun and engaging. Today I'm going to share some activities to help your students understand the equal sign. 

Use these fun and creative activities to help your students understand the equal sign this year.

Teaching Equality


Just like any other lesson, I like to begin by capturing my students' attention and a great way to do that is through a cross-curricular activity like a read-aloud. There are many different books you can use to help your students understand the equal sign. One example is Equal Shmequal by Virginia Kroll. Read about a mouse and her friends wanting to play a game of tug-a-war.  But first, they must learn how to make equal teams. The book is totally relatable, and it does a great job of explaining the concept in terms a younger student can understand. 

Equal Shmequal by Virginia Kroll is a fantastic book to read as you begin to introduce the concept of the equal sign to your students.

Next, I like to assess the prior knowledge of my students. This really helps me know where we are starting from so I can adjust my teaching. A great way to do this is with an anchor chart discussion. All you need is a poster board-size paper or your whiteboard and some sticky notes. I make two columns. One for what "equal" means and one for what "equal" DOES NOT mean. The kids write their answers on post its and come to place them on the chart. This is a great discussion opportunity to begin the lesson with.

Whole Group Instruction

Visualizing Equality

Now it's time to dive in together. I love to use tons of visuals for this part of the lesson. A number balance scale is a great way to demonstrate what equal parts actually look like. We take some time to demonstrate what is equal and what is NOT equal. I like to do this activity with both single numbers and simple equations. 

It's super important to make sure that they grasp what the word equal means at this point in the lesson before you move on. 

Focusing on Equations

After demonstrating with the scale, it's time for some hands-on whole-group practice. This is easy to do with math flashcards and objects you already have in your classroom. 

Begin making simple equations with the cards to demonstrate equality like  5+1 = 4+2 crayons and 3+3 = 2+4 paperclips. Then, practice the same way making equations that are NOT true like 4+5 = 2+3 markers and 7+1= 3+3 erasers. 

As each of these equality equations is put on the board, we take the time to build a representation.  This might be through drawing or by grabbing some math manipulatives and building the equations.  Either way, we use this visual to determine if the two equations are equal. If drawing, having the students draw a line to connect the two sets is an easy way for them to see if there is the same number in each set.

Drawing sets and connecting each item in the set is an easy way for students to determine if the two sets are equal.

All of these visuals and hands-on activities will help your students grasp the concept much quicker. This allows us to move into making our own number sentences. By making number sentences that are equal and equations that are NOT equal, students can build a well-rounded understanding of what equal means. 

Understanding the Equal Sign

As we finish up our lessons on the equal sign, I have students complete an interactive book.  This small booklet is a great way to assess what students understand and where we might need to do some reteaching.  It is a great way for my kiddos to show me what they know and reinforce their knowledge of the equal sign. They love completing this activity.

A fun booklet and worksheets like these are great activities to use when helping students understand the equal sign in first grade.

Centers & Practice Activities 

Along with the interactive book in this amazing resource, I use many of the other activities to help my students fully grasp this concept. Inside this resource, you'll find a poster explaining the equal sign, the interactive book, 22 different worksheets for practice, and 2 center activities. The variety of activities inside this unit is a great place to start when first beginning to teach the equal sign. 

This fun center activity is a great way for students to visually understand the equal sign.

Use the center activities to further model this concept with students and then send them off in pairs to practice independently. Students will love the movable balance arm that provides a visual of equal and not equal for them.

There are many different types of worksheets included as well. This makes it simple and easy to differentiate or slowly increases difficulty as students progress. There are 11 pages practicing equal or not with addition, 6 pages practicing equal or not with mixed addition and subtraction, 4 pages practicing equal equations with missing numbers, and 1 picture puzzle worksheet. Answer keys are included as well for easy grading! This resource has everything you need to help introduce the equal sign in depth.

More Ideas for Independent Practice

Now that we've introduced our concept and practiced it together, it's time for some more independent practice opportunities during center time. I like to use a mix of strategies here like games, activities, and worksheets to keep the practice fresh and fun. 

Equal Sign Task Cards 

I'm a big fan of task cards in my classroom. Once you prep them, they're an easy way to facilitate practice over and over again! I love using Poke Cards as independent practice because they are self-correcting. All you have to do is put the answer on the back of the cards and students can check themselves. 

Use these equal sign poke task cards for a self checking way to help students understand the equal sign.

This allows them to correct their own mistakes as they go. This set of True/FalsePoke Cards has students decide if an equation is equal or not. The astronaut theme keeps the activity interesting. 

The resource also comes with practice pages and a bonus craft. In this easy prep activity, students will focus on balancing equations while creating a spacecraft and parachute. It also makes a precious bulletin board after the fact! 

Digital Center Activity 

Do you ever use digital resources in your classroom? I find them to be a wonderful way to balance out my prep load. I'm all for hands-on learning activities, but mixing in a few digital options definitely helps to fill the gaps! Not to mention, it's no secret that students love technology! This makes helping them understand the equal sign a breeze!

Use this digital center activity to help students understand the equal sign with a fun digital twist students can use in centers, at school, or even at home.

In my room, I love to use this Google Slides resource for balancing equations. The kids LOVE the fun space theme, and I love that they get some no-prep practice with this tricky concept! There are 30 slides included in 3 different styles inside this resource. Students will drag and drop their answers to show correctly balanced equations and identify false equations. 

Write the Room Activity 

Next on my list of fun practice activities is a student favorite - write the room! I'm a big fan of write the room since it allows my kiddos to move around, stretch their legs, and continue working on a specific skill at the same time. When working on the equal sign, we use this resource to practice. Students will work on balancing addition and subtraction equations for numbers up to 20 with this activity. 

Use this fun write the room activity to get your kiddos up and moving as they are learning to understand the equal sign.

I love using this as a traditional write the room activity, but you can also play it as a Scoot game with your whole group at once! It also works well as a seated center activity too. Best of all, there are 4 different recording sheets included so you can differentiate by skill level. Each one has a number line on it for easy reference too. 

FREE Rocket Puzzles 

Last on my list, I choose a review game like this Balancing Equations Rocket Puzzle. Students will match a top rocket piece with a bottom rocket piece that has the same sum. 

Grab these free Equal Sign Rocket Puzzles to help your students begin to understand the equal sign.

Then, they can record the two number sentences that are equal on the recording sheet. It's a blast! My kids love it so much that I offer it as a FREE resource in my TPT store. You can grab it HERE

Looking for More Resources?

I hope this gives you some idea of activities to help your students understand the equal sign that you can use in your classroom. These activities make it so much easier for my students to grasp the concept while having fun.  

I have tons of resources and activities to help your students understand the equal sign. Be sure to check them all out HERE in my TPT store. 

Save it for Later

Be sure to pin this to your favorite math board! You'll be all set and ready to teach the equal sign.

Looking for ways to help your students understand the equal sign this year? Use these fun and engaging activities to introduce, practice, and master understanding the equal sign. From printable worksheets which require zero prep from you to hands on booklets your students will love putting together, these equal sign activities include tons of fun ways for students to learn how to use the equal sign. #thechocolateteacher #activitiestohelpyourstudentsunderstandtheequalsign #equalsigninfirstgrade

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