Area models for multiplication throughout the K-12 curriculum

Let’s take a look at area models, shall we?

My thesis today is that area models should be ubiquitous across the entire curriculum because mathematics is a sense making discipline. As math educators, we ought to encourage our students to take every opportunity to visualize their mathematics in an effort to illuminate, explain, prove, and bring intuition.

So let’s take a walk through the K-12 math curriculum and highlight the use of area models as they might apply to arithmeticalgebra, and calculus.



Students experience area models for the first time in elementary school as they work to visualize multi-digit multiplication. This can also be used for division as well, just running the logic in reverse–that is, seeking an unknown “side length” rather than an unknown area. And Base Ten Blocks can be used to help students understand the building blocks of our number system.

Here’s how you might work out 27\times 54:

27\times 54 = (20+7)(50+4)=(20)(50)+(20)(4)+(7)(50)+(7)(4)


27\times 54=1000+80+350+28=1458

The advantage of using a visual model like this is that you can easily see your calculation and explain why constituent calculations, taken together, faithfully produce the desired result. If you do a “man on the street” interview with most users or purveyors of the standard algorithm, you would almost certainly not get crystal clear explanations for why it produces results. For a further discussion of area models for multi-digit multiplication, see this article, or read Jo Boaler’s now famous book Mathematical Mindsets.


In middle school, as students first encounter algebra, they may use area models to support their algebraic reasoning around multiplying polynomials. And in an Algebra 2 course they may learn about polynomial division and support their thinking using an area model in the same way they used area models to do division in elementary school. Here Algebra Tiles can be used as physical manipulatives to support student learning.

Here’s how you might work out (x+4)(2x+3):




Notice also that if you let x=10, you obtain the following result from arithmetic:

14\times 23 = 200+110+12=322

The Common Core places special emphasis on making such connections. I agree with this effort, even though I can also commiserate with fellow math teachers who say things like, “My Precalculus students still use the box method for multiplying polynomials!” We definitely want to move our students toward fluency, but perhaps we should wait for them to realize that they don’t need their visual models. Eventually most students figure out on their own that it would be more efficient to do without the models.


Later in high school, as students first study calculus, area models can be used to bring understanding to the Product Rule–a result that is often memorized without any understanding. Even the usual “textbook proof” justifies but does not illuminate.

Here’s an informal proof of the Product Rule using an area model:

The “change in” the quantity L\cdot W can be thought of as the change in the area of a rectangle with side lengths L and W. That is, let A=LW. As we change L and W by amounts \Delta L and \Delta W, we are wondering how the overall area changes (that is, what is \Delta A?).

If the side length L increases by \Delta L, the new side length is L+\Delta L. Similarly, the width is now W+\Delta W. It follows that the new area is:

A+\Delta A=(L+\Delta L)(W+\Delta W)=LW+L\Delta W+W\Delta L+\Delta L\Delta W


Keeping in mind that A=LW, we can subtract this quantity from both sides to obtain:

\Delta A=L\Delta W+W\Delta L+\Delta L\Delta W

Dividing through by \Delta x gives:

\frac{\Delta A}{\Delta x}=L\cdot\frac{\Delta W}{\Delta x}+W\cdot\frac{\Delta L}{\Delta x}+\frac{\Delta L}{\Delta x} \frac{\Delta W}{\Delta x} \Delta x

And taking limits as \Delta x\to 0 gives the desired result:



If you’re like me, you once looked down on area models as being for those who can’t handle the “real” algebra. But if we take that view, there’s a lot of sense-making that we’re missing out on. Area models are an important tool in our tool belt for bringing clarity and connections to our math students.

Okay, so last question: Base Ten Blocks exist, and Algebra Tiles exist. What do you think? Shall we manufacture and sell Calculus DX Tiles © ? 🙂


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