Wanna bet $1,000 you can do it? Before you decide, imagine how difficult it would be to not slip up and use one if you were reporting on Al and Ben below and how clumsy it would sound if you did not:
• With pronouns: “Al and Ben were playing outside. They got so dirty that their moms got mad at them and made them hose each other off.”
• Without pronouns: “Al and Ben were playing outside. Al and Ben got so dirty that Al and Ben’s moms got mad at Al and Ben and made Al hose off Ben and Ben hose off Al.
To think that young children cannot handle math pronouns like X and Y standing for numbers is preposterous. Any 5-year-old knows lots of pronouns and they learned them without even trying. If they grew up in a family where more than one language was spoken, they will know plenty from each language. If they grow up around algebra in school, they will learn the pronouns of that language just the same and become fluent with equations like X+3=8 instead of infantile number sentences like +3=8.
Depriving children of algebra until middle school or high school makes absolutely no sense. Algebra is far less abstract than reading. Young children are not spared the abstraction of “cat” representing a furry household pet, so why are they sheltered from a letter like X that stands for a number. Also, a lot of algebra that may look scary is way easier to do than arithmetic. Decide for yourself which is easier, 478+354 or 2x+5x? 4092–316 or 25y–12y? 63x48 or 5a•7b? (The answers to the algebra problems are 7x, 13y, and 35ab, respectively.)
By not teaching algebra in elementary school, children grow to fear it, thinking it must be tough stuff if they have to be practically grown to do it. If they are still struggling with arithmetic when they get to middle school or high school, as many are, how can they hope to succeed in something they believe is even harder. Attitude matters in math the same as it does in sports. If one thinks he or she cannot do something, he or she cannot. If children have been since they were in kindergarten, they know they can do algebra. They will tell you that the X in X+3=8 stands for a number they do not know yet. That is a great answer—one that is easily morphed into the formality of high school algebra.