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You are on page 1of 7

**RESEARCH, REFLECTION, PRACTICE
**

D

orothy, a second grader at an at-risk school

where 87 percent of the students receive free

or reduced lunches, watched intently as Mrs.

T laid out pattern blocks to create a sequence of

ﬁgures shaped like people (see ﬁg. 1). When Mrs.

T asked Dorothy, “What will the next one look

like?” Dorothy replied, “Well, if you wanted to go

from [the ﬁrst person] all the way to four … you

would put a head, then the body, hands, then the

feet. And then you would put a hat, and another

hat, and another one, and another one …. I think

that’s heavy for a person.” Dorothy thought the hats

looked a bit top-heavy; nevertheless, she extended

the pictorial growth pattern by correctly building

the fourth person (see ﬁg. 1).

Mrs. T then asked Dorothy to build the next per-

son in the sequence. Dorothy did so quickly, using

the same strategy she employed to build the fourth

person: building the “person” ﬁrst (which, she

said, comprised head, body, hands, and feet) and

adding ﬁve hats. When Mrs. T asked Dorothy how

she knew how to build this ﬁfth person, Dorothy

replied, “If that’s four [pointing to the fourth ﬁgure]

and you wanted to go to ﬁve, you would just make

the same person and then get one more [hat] from

four and put it on ﬁve.”

Next, Mrs. T asked Dorothy how many pattern

blocks she would need to build the sixth person in

the sequence. Without building the person, Dorothy

reasoned she would need twelve blocks, six for

the person, and one more hat than the ﬁfth ﬁgure,

which made six hats. Mrs. T asked what the tenth

person would look like, and without hesitating,

Dorothy responded, “The same person [pointing

to the bodies of the people she had already built]

except with ten hats on top.” Dorothy had never

studied pictorial growth patterns before, but in Mrs.

T’s problem-solving interview with her, apparently

Dorothy was thinking algebraically.

Algebraic Thinking

Principles and Standards for School Mathemat-

ics (NCTM 2000) advocates exploring algebraic

ideas beginning in prekindergarten and continuing

through the high school mathematics curriculum.

Because the word algebra is typically equated with

a formalized study of symbol systems (Smith 2003),

does this mean we need to teach children in the

early elementary grades to interpret and solve equa-

tions? Fortunately, the answer to the question is no.

Research has provided a broader view of algebra,

placing emphasis on algebraic thinking, a concept

that focuses on ways of generalizing (Smith 2003).

In particular, algebraic thinking emphasizes ana-

lyzing change, generalizing relationships among

quantities, and representing these mathematical

relationships in various ways (NCTM 2000). For

children in the early elementary grades, building

up algebraic reasoning involves “mov[ing] beyond

numerical reasoning to more general reasoning

about relationship, quantity, and ways of notating

and symbolizing” (Yackel 2002, p. 201).

Instead of deﬁning speciﬁc algebra content that

should be included in early-grades curricula, Yackel

(2002) and others (e.g., NCTM and MSEB 1998;

Smith 2003) advocate that educators focus on the

activities and questions that encourage children to

think in ways leading to a development of algebraic

reasoning. One of the many approaches to help

children generalize and represent relationships is

the study of geometric or pictorial growth patterns

(Ferrini-Mundy, Lappan, and Phillips 1997; NCTM

2000; Orton, Orton, and Roper 1999).

In this article, we explore how analyzing and

Algebraic Thinking and

Pictorial Growth Patterns

Est her M. H. Bi l l i ngs, Tar ah L. Ti edt , and Li ndsey H. Sl at er

Esther M. H. Billings, billinge@gvsu.edu, teaches prospective elementary teachers at Grand

Valley State University, Allendale, MI. She is interested in ﬁnding ways to help children and

teachers deepen their ability to reason algebraically. Tarah L. Tiedt, tarah@benandtarah.com,

teaches ﬁrst grade at Lakeshore Public Schools in Stevensville, MI. She is interested in how

children analyze, extend, or generalize patterns and how working with patterns may relate

to children’s understanding of patterns in reading and writing. Lindsey H. Slater, slaterl@

wyoming.k12.mi.us, teaches in a multi-age, ﬁrst-through-third-grade classroom at Oriole Park

Elementary School, Wyoming, MI. She is interested in how students learn math and different

ways to teach mathematics to reach students at different levels.

Edited by Cindy Langrall, Langrall@ilstu.edu, a professor in the mathematics department at

Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-4520. “Research, Reﬂection, Practice” describes

research and demonstrates its importance to practicing classroom teachers. Readers are

encouraged to send manuscripts appropriate for this section by accessing tcm.msubmit.net.

Manuscripts should be eight to ten doubled-spaced typed pages.

Copyright © 2007 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.

This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008 303

extending pictorial growth patterns (like Dorothy’s

people pattern found in ﬁg. 1) can promote alge-

braic thinking in young children, ultimately helping

them to extend their numerical reasoning to think-

ing more generally about relationships.

What Is a Pictorial Growth

Pattern?

A pictorial growth pattern, sometimes called a

geometric pattern (NCTM 2000), is a pattern made

from a sequence of ﬁgures that change from one

term to the next in a predictable way. A pictorial

growth pattern involves two variables: some quan-

tiﬁable aspect of a ﬁgure (the dependent variable)

is coordinated with an indexing or counting system

(the independent variable), identifying the position

of the ﬁgure in the pattern. Often, a dependent vari-

able is linked to the total number of objects com-

prising the ﬁgure, but other aspects of a pictorial

growth pattern could be analyzed. For example, in

ﬁgure 1, the total number of blocks needed to make

a person or the number of hats on a person could

both be considered dependent variables.

When students study pictorial growth patterns,

often they are encouraged to convert the pictorial

growth pattern into a number pattern and analyze the

number pattern rather than use the physical construc-

tion of the pattern (Orton, Orton, and Roper 1999).

However, research shows that the pictorial or physi-

cal construction of a pattern can be a powerful tool,

enabling students to generalize relationships inher-

ent in the pictorial growth pattern (Orton, Orton, and

Roper 1999; Steele 2005; Thornton 2001). Although

these valuable pictorial growth patterns are featured

in reform-based middle-school mathematics cur-

ricula, they are not traditionally explored in early

elementary grades; pattern exploration in the lower

elementary grades typically emphasizes analyzing

and extending repeating patterns of objects and

numeric patterns (Liljedahl 2004).

Because pictorial growth patterns can provide

a rich context for developing algebraic thinking

in older students, we decided to investigate how

this context could develop and support children’s

algebraic thinking in the early elementary grades.

More speciﬁcally, we examined the strategies and

reasoning processes young children use to analyze,

extend, and generalize pictorial growth patterns. We

collected data from eight students in grades two and

three through two separate one-on-one problem-

solving interviews (McCarthy 2005; Slater 2005).

During the interviews, we asked the children a

series of similar questions for each of ﬁve pictorial

growth patterns. (See ﬁg. 2 for an example of an

interview task.)

Processes children use to

analyze and extend pictorial

growth patterns

As we analyzed the thinking of the children in

our study, we found they used similar processes

(outlined in ﬁg. 3) to describe, analyze, extend, and

People pattern 1

Figure 1

Mrs. T lays down three people in a pattern Dorothy creates the fourth

person in the pattern

Ice cream cone pattern

Figure 2

Cone 1 Cone 2 Cone 3

Build the ﬁrst three ﬁgures in front of the child, using pattern blocks.

Ask questions:

1. “What do you notice?”

2. “Could you guess what the next cone would look like?”

Have the student extend the pattern by creating the next two ﬁgures.

Ask more questions:

3. “How did you know that?”

4. “How many scoops would be in the tenth cone?”

5. “How many blocks will be in the eleventh cone?”

6. “Can you explain the pattern for building any size ice cream cone?”

Ask follow-up questions:

7. “How many scoops will the ice cream cone have?”

8. “How many shapes will you need?”

304 Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008

begin to generalize the relationships found in the

pictorial growth patterns, even though they had not

previously studied these types of patterns (Billings

and Tiedt 2006).

Processes using a covariational

analysis of change

The children ﬁrst engaged in what Smith (2003)

calls a “covariation analysis of the pattern,” which

involves analyzing how each variable changes

apart from the other. In particular, the children

primarily focused their analysis on the dependent

variable and analyzed the physical construction of

the ﬁgures as they changed from one ﬁgure to the

next. First they analyzed how consecutive ﬁgures

changed and often quantiﬁed this change. (Process

1: Analyze change between consecutive ﬁgures.)

They used this knowledge to employ process 2 and

construct the next ﬁgure in the sequence by build-

ing onto the previous ﬁgure. While constructing or

describing subsequent ﬁgures, many of the children

began to simultaneously use process 3 and identify

the aspects of a ﬁgure that stayed the same and the

aspects that changed from one ﬁgure to the next

and to draw on this knowledge to build subsequent

ﬁgures in the pattern.

Thinking back to how Dorothy analyzed and

extended the people pattern at the beginning of this

article, we can observe how she engaged in these

three processes. As Mrs. T laid down the ﬁgures in

the pattern, Dorothy immediately noticed that the

number of hats increased by one: “First there was

square, then square, square, then square, square,

square” (process 1). However, in observing that

subsequent persons in the pattern had one more hat

than the previous person (what changes), she also

noticed that the body of the person was identical

from one person to the next (what stays the same,

process 3). To build the fourth person, Dorothy

made a body identical to the bodies of the ﬁrst three

persons in the pattern and then added one more hat

than the third person had on, for a total of four hats

(process 2). To build the ﬁfth person, she repeated

this process but added one more hat than the fourth

person, for a total of ﬁve hats. We consider Dorothy

to have successfully described and extended this

pattern using a covariational analysis.

When the ﬁgures in a pictorial growth pattern

did not look like a recognizable object, such as

the dot patterns in ﬁgure 4, some children had dif-

ﬁculty creating subsequent ﬁgures. Although these

children correctly determined that the number of

dots increased by one (process 1) and added one

dot to create each subsequent ﬁgure (process 2),

they did not identify the aspects of the ﬁgure that

either stayed the same or changed (process 3) and

instead arranged the dots into recognizable objects

such as letters L or H (for dot patterns 1 and 2

respectively).

For example, when Adam was initially shown

dot pattern 1 and asked what he noticed, he

described the ﬁrst ﬁgure as “two dots; it looks like

two eyes.” Adam continued to describe the next

two ﬁgures in this sequence, “This one [points to

card 2] looks like an L, this one [points to card 3]

looks like an even better L.” When asked if he saw

a pattern, Adam replied “Yeah, one, two [points

to dots in card 1], one, two, three [point to dots in

card 2], one, two, three, four [points to dots in card

3].” He used this knowledge to make the fourth

ﬁgure in this pattern. Adam stated, “Five, it would

be ﬁve [dots],” and drew the dots to look like an L

(see ﬁg. 5). Similarly, after being shown what the

conﬁguration of dots should look like for the fourth

and ﬁfth cards in this pattern, and then asked to cre-

ate the eighth card, Adam stated, “This would have

seven [dots] [points to the blank card 6], and this

one has eight [points to the blank card 7. Pause.]

This one [points to the blank card 8] will have

nine.” He then proceeded to draw a dot conﬁgura-

tion with nine dots that looked like an L (see ﬁg. 5).

Adam correctly identiﬁed how the number of dots

changed between consecutive ﬁgures (processes

1 and 2) but did not recognize how the placement

of the dots on the cards in the pattern stayed the

same or changed from one ﬁgure to the next. Adam

reconﬁgured the dots so they would look like the

letter L and continued to place the dots in differ-

ent L arrangements as he extended this pattern to

ﬁgures much further in the sequence.

Processes children used to analyze and extend pictorial growth

patterns

Processes Using a Covariational Analysis of Change

Process 1 Analyze change between consecutive ﬁgures.

Process 2 Use the previous ﬁgure to build up to a new ﬁgure.

Process 3 Identify what stays the same and what changes in the pattern.

Processes Using a Correspondence Analysis of Change

Process 4 Index the ﬁgure number with the changing aspect of the depen-

dent variable.

Process 5 Extend ﬁgure to a large number n.

Figure 3

Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008 305

Processes using

correspondence analysis

As the children engaged in the covariational pro-

cess of analyzing how the physical construction of

the ﬁgures changed, they began to shift to a “cor-

respondence analysis” (Smith 2003) in which they

looked for a relationship between the independent

and dependent variables. In particular, they indexed

the ﬁgure number (independent variable) with an

aspect of the ﬁgure that was changing (Process

4: Index ﬁgure number with changing aspect of

dependent variable.) After this correspondence

was determined, the children established what the

“changing” aspect of the ﬁgure would look like

based on the ﬁgure number. They then replicated the

aspect of the ﬁgure that “stayed the same” to create

a ﬁgure located further out in the pattern sequence

(Process 5: Extend ﬁgure to a large letter n.). This

correspondence analysis led the children to predict

what subsequent ﬁgures would look like and shifted

their thinking to a more generalized way of viewing

the relationship between the variables. For example,

Dorothy began to shift her thinking when asked to

describe the total number of blocks needed to build

the sixth person. She described this quantity as “six

plus ﬁve … because if there’s six [hats], and you

wanted the total, then you should [have] used the

ﬁve [pointing to the blocks comprising body of the

ﬁfth ﬁgure] and add[ed] them together.” Here, she

indexed the number of hats according to the num-

ber of ﬁgures or people and continued to use this

indexing to think more generally about the relation-

ship. Dorothy then described how to build the tenth

person without recursively building the seventh,

eighth, and ninth ﬁgures. She stated that “[the tenth

person would be] the same person [pointing to the

bodies of the people she had already built—see

ﬁg. 1] except with ten hats on top.”

Dot patterns

Dot pattern 1 Dot pattern 2

Card 1 Card 2 Card 3 Card 1 Card 2 Card 3

Figure 4

Questions for Each Dot Pattern

Show the children the ﬁrst three dot conﬁgurations, where each ﬁgure (collection of dots) is on a separate note card.

1. Can you tell me about this one?

2. Do you see a pattern?

3. What would the next one look like? Show me. (Have the student draw the ﬁgure on a blank note card. If the student doesn’t make the

correct fourth ﬁgure, tell the student, “This is the fourth shape that I came up with.” Draw the ﬁgure in rows, from top to bottom.)

4. Draw the ﬁfth ﬁgure for the student on a separate note card. (Draw as described above.)

5. Lay out two blank note cards for the sixth and seventh ﬁgures. Ask the student to draw the eighth ﬁgure on a note card. If the

student draws or uses the sixth and seventh to ﬁgure out the eighth, ask her if there is another way to ﬁnd the eighth ﬁgure without

making all the ﬁgures.

6. Show the student the eleventh ﬁgure. Ask her to show you the tenth ﬁgure. Ask her to explain how she knew how to make the tenth

ﬁgure.

7. Ask the student what the twenty-ﬁfth ﬁgure would look like:

a. How many dots would be in the twenty-ﬁfth ﬁgure?

b. How would you explain to your mom how to make the twenty-ﬁfth ﬁgure? (If the student is stuck, ask her, “If you knew how

many dots were on the twenty-fourth ﬁgure, would you be able to tell me how many dots are on the

twenty-ﬁfth one?”

306 Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008

Typically, we noticed a subtle change in the

children’s thinking from a covariational to a corre-

spondence analysis when we asked them to extend

the pattern to a ﬁgure further out in the sequence.

For these extensions, we selected ﬁgures that would

be tedious to build up recursively, such as the tenth

or twenty-ﬁfth terms. All of the children could suc-

cessfully index situations in which the ﬁgure num-

ber matched the part of the ﬁgure that was chang-

ing, such as in ﬁgure 1, where the ﬁgure number

(person number) matches the number of hats. How-

ever, some of the children could not consistently

index or apply this knowledge when the ﬁgures in

the pattern did not comprise a recognizable image,

such as the dot patterns in ﬁgure 4.

Some of the children were able to think more

generally about relationships in the more abstract

pictorial growth patterns. For example, as Carl, a

third grader, analyzed dot pattern 2 (see ﬁg. 4), he

ﬁrst engaged in a covariational analysis of the dots.

When initially asked, “Can you tell me about this

one?” Carl responded, “This one starts out with

four [pointing at card 1]. This one [pointing to card

2] adds one and it makes two dots over here [point-

ing to right side of card] and three dots over here

[pointing to left side of card]. This one [pointing to

third card] has one dot up here [pointing to top left

dot] and keeps these two [pointing to right side of

card].” He noticed the number of dots was growing

by one from one ﬁgure to the next (process 1) and

partitioned the ﬁgure into two columns, observing

that the right hand column of dots stayed the same

while the left hand column grew by one dot with

each subsequent ﬁgure (process 3).

After extending the pattern recursively for a

few terms by adding one dot to the top of the left

column to build the next ﬁgure in the sequence

(process 2), Carl began to incorporate a correspon-

dence analysis into his thinking; he indexed the

dot-card number with the number of dots in the

left hand column (process 4) and in the process,

began thinking more generally about the relation-

ships inherent in the pattern. For instance, when

asked what the eighth dot card would look like,

Carl drew a card that looked like the computer-

generated card in ﬁgure 6 and explained, “Cause

on the ﬁfth one, there’s six [dots]. There’s six on

this side [pointing to left hand column of dots on

card 5]. There’s one more than the [card] number

and then there’s two on this [right hand column]

side on all of them except this one [pointing to

the ﬁrst card], so I just had one more than eight

on this side [pointing to left hand column], so it

equals nine. Then I put two over here [pointing

to right hand column].” Carl similarly described

the twenty-ﬁfth card: “There would be twenty-six

of these [dots] [pointing to the left hand column

of dots on the tenth card], and there would be

two over on this side [pointing to the right hand

column of dots].” When asked, “How would you

explain to your teacher how to make the twenty-

ﬁfth one?” Carl replied, “I would tell her, there

would be one more [dot] than the [card] number

[pointing to the left hand column of dots], then

look at the other cards to ﬁnd out what would be

on this [right hand column] side.” From Carl’s

description, one can see how he used the physical

construction of the dots and transitioned to think-

ing more generally about the relationship between

the number of dots and the ﬁgure number.

Teaching Connections:

Use Questions to Promote

Algebraic Thinking

As Yackel (2002) notes, “Teacher questions, stu-

dent solutions, and attempts to follow up on either

or both are central to how the instructional activity

is realized in action” (p. 201). Consequently, the

types of questions we ask children about pictorial

growth patterns will inﬂuence how they analyze

patterns. The questions we designed for our inter-

views encouraged children to analyze the pictorial

or physical representation of the growth pattern

and prompted them to think about the relationships

inherent in the pattern.

By using the physical representation of the ﬁg-

ures in a pattern and engaging in the ﬁve processes

Carl’s 8th card for dot

pattern 2

Figure 6

Adam’s extension of dot pattern 1

Figure 5

Adam’s card 4 Adam’s card 8

Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008 307

we describe in this paper, children successfully

extended the pattern to other ﬁgures in the sequence

and began to think about the relationships in the

pattern. However, when children based their analy-

sis on the number of objects in a ﬁgure (such as in

the dot problems) and did not also utilize the physi-

cal construction of the ﬁgures, they were unable to

consistently and successfully extend the patterns.

As teachers, we should challenge children to use

the physical construction of the growth pattern as

they analyze and extend it.

For example, after we created the ﬁrst few terms

in the pattern, we always began the interview with a

“posing question” (Goldin 1998) such as, “What do

you notice?” This type of question gives children

the freedom to observe whatever they want about a

pattern and informs the teacher as to whether or not

the children actually recognize a pattern of growth.

In addition, the teacher gains valuable insight into

the types of relationships that children indepen-

dently identify before prompting. To encourage

children to directly utilize and analyze the physical

construction of any pictorial growth pattern, ask

them either to build ﬁgures or describe their struc-

ture, as well as to analyze the next few consecutive

ﬁgures in the sequence (for example, see questions

3–7 in ﬁgure 2 and questions 3–6 in ﬁgure 4).

These types of questions encourage children to

engage in a covariational analysis of the pattern

as they notice how consecutive ﬁgures in a pattern

change and then extend the pattern.

Furthermore, since we want to lay the foundation

for children to begin thinking more generally about

relationships, it is crucial to ask questions about ﬁgures

located much further out in the pattern sequence––ﬁg-

ures that would be cumbersome to build recursively

(for example, question 7 in ﬁgure 4).

If children have difﬁculty creating or describing

ﬁgures, ask questions that encourage analyzing the

pattern from a correspondence point of view to help

them begin to think about the general relationships

in the pattern. Ask questions such as the following:

• “What is changing in each of these ﬁgures?”

• “What is staying the same?”

• “What do you notice about ﬁgure number ____

and ____” (whatever they have identiﬁed as

changing)?

• “How can you use this information to build this

ﬁgure?”

Encourage children to index the ﬁgure number

with the changing aspect of the ﬁgure, thus helping

them understand the general relationship between

the variables. Some children may also be ready to

describe how to create the ﬁgure at any position in

the sequence, explicitly transitioning their think-

ing to the generalized relationships inherent in the

pattern.

Use a variety of different types

of pictorial growth patterns

We discovered that it was easier for children to

analyze and extend pictorial growth patterns con-

structed to look like recognizable ﬁgures—such

as the ice cream cone and people patterns—rather

than more abstract ones, such as the dot patterns.

Consequently, when introducing children to alge-

braic thinking via pictorial growth patterns, it may

be wise to begin with patterns comprised of iden-

tiﬁable ﬁgures. We conjecture that children had an

easier time analyzing what was the same and what

was changing in these patterns because the ﬁgures

could be chunked into recognizable parts. Thus,

after extending the pattern recursively, they could

transition to indexing the changing part of the pat-

tern and extend the pattern to a ﬁgure much farther

out in the sequence. After children are comfortable

analyzing pictorial growth patterns comprised of

identiﬁable ﬁgures, it is essential that teachers chal-

lenge and deepen their thinking by providing pic-

torial growth patterns comprised of more abstract

ﬁgures.

Concluding Remarks

The children’s thinking reported in this paper

illustrates that analyzing and extending pictorial

growth patterns provides a meaningful context

for young children to think algebraically as they

analyze change and think more generally about

the relationships inherent in a pattern. By studying

and reﬂecting about how these children, who had

no previous experience with pictorial growth pat-

terns, analyzed and extended pictorial growth pat-

terns, we identiﬁed various processes they used to

extend these types of patterns. Awareness of these

processes can assist teachers to intentionally guide

children to analyze change and extend and gener-

alize relationships. By asking children to analyze

pictorial growth patterns in the ways described in

this article, teachers provide a foundational experi-

ence in algebraic thinking that is extendable to the

upper elementary and middle school grades, where

children use symbols to express their generaliza-

tions of mathematical relationships.

308 Teaching Children Mathematics / December 2007/January 2008

References

Billings, Esther and Tarah McCarthy Tiedt. “Using Pic-

torial Growth Patterns to Build Algebraic Thinking.”

Presentation at the 84th Conference of the National

Council of Teachers of Mathematics, St. Louis, MO,

2006.

Ferrini-Mundy, Joan, Glenda Lappan, and Elizabeth

Phillips. “Experiences with Patterning.” Teaching

Children Mathematics 3, no. 6 (February 1997):

282–89.

Goldin, Gerald. “Observing Mathematical Problem Solv-

ing through Task-based Interviews.” In Qualitative

Research Methods in Mathematics Education, pp.

40–62. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of

Mathematics, 1998.

Liljedahl, Peter. “Repeating Pattern or Number Pat-

tern: The Distinction Is Blurred.” Focus on Learning

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