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 engaging activities for teaching the equal sign in first grade.

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. 

Read the book Equal Shmequal as part of your activities to teach your students the equal sign.

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

Now it's time to dive in together. I love to use tons of visuals for this part of the lesson. A 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.  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 to equations. 

Use a visual example like a scale to help your students understand that numbers of objects can be equal or not equal.
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.

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. 

Independent practice for learning the equal sign is fun and engaging with this interactive equal sign book.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.

Independent Practice

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

This freebie has everything you need to help your students understand the equal sign in fun and engaging ways they will love.Next, we play some sort of 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. 

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

We also like to complete an activity like a Poke Card and a craft. 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. 

Poke cards are a great self checking way for students to practice understanding 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. 

Teacher Tip: laminate the cards so you can use them year after year. 

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! 

Lastly, I like to continue to practice the skill through worksheets and centers. I have compiled all of my favorite practice activities in this amazing resource! It includes:

  • Small poster explaining the equal sign
  • Student interactive book practicing equal sign
  • 11 worksheets practicing equal or not with addition
  • 6 worksheets practicing equal or not with mixed addition and subtraction
  • 4 worksheets practicing equal equations with missing numbers
  • 1 picture puzzle worksheet
  • Answer keys
  • 2 center activities

The two math centers are great to use to introduce and continue practicing this math skill. Students will love the movable balance arm that provides a visual of equal and not equal for them. This resource has everything you need to help make sure your students understand the equal sign.

Use these equal sign and balanced equations activities for interactive and fun ways to help your students understand the equal sign.

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.

Use these fun and engaging activities for teaching the equal sign in first grade.

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