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Greater than / Less than signs – taking the alligator thing to a whole new level

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Growing up, I remember learning to remember the difference between the greater than and less than signs by imagining a hungry alligator with an open mouth getting ready to “eat” the bigger number.

I recently got to work on this concept in an online tutoring session with a student of mine who’s a fifth grader.

First we had a regular < sign and we talked about the "alligator" idea. 2010-10-05_2349

He drew in some pointy alligator teeth:

Then he spontaneously drew a whole alligator:

As we worked on different inequality problems, he took it further. He drew a picture of a bird and explained that the bird’s closed little beak is shaped like an inequality sign. The bird would go for the smaller meal, while the alligator would go for the bigger meal.


And he topped it off – with sound effects.

The smaller number, which the bird would eat, has a “peck peck” sound. The larger number, which the alligator would eat, has a “chomp chomp” sound. Oh my gosh, I love it!

I’d never seen the alligator metaphor pushed this far before, and I wanted to share my student’s creative ideas!

What’s your favorite way to remember (or teach) the difference between the two signs?

Related posts:
Confused about fractions? Visualize brownies, not pizzas
Gallon Man to the Rescue!
Five fun ways to help your kids learn math (this summer)

7 Comments on “Greater than / Less than signs – taking the alligator thing to a whole new level”

  • Teachies on October 13th 5:26 pm

    I want kids to be able to read across an inequality, which I find is hard if they learn the symbols the “alligator way.” So, I teach it the “alligator way” but then I also teach the students that < looks like a slanted L which stands for "less than." Then a student can read a + 5 does not look like a slanted L so it stands for “more than.”

  • Rebecca Zook on October 31st 5:41 pm

    Good point about wanting kids to be able to read across an inequality! Thanks for sharing your suggestion about the slanted L way!

  • Nick on October 13th 5:39 pm

    What if the alligator was facing the other way? 😉

    But seriously, you could just remember that the larger number goes at the “larger” end of the symbol. That works for both 3 3.

  • Nick on October 13th 5:41 pm

    Oops — it looks like the blogging software ate my symbols! That last sentence above should read: That works for both 3 “less than” 5 and 5 “greater than” 3.

  • Rebecca Zook on October 31st 5:42 pm

    Hey, Nick! Welcome and thank you for stopping by. Do you know what, I’ve never thought about the larger end going towards the larger number before. thanks for sharing that!

  • MerryMakes on November 30th 12:21 am

    I’m with Nick on this one. Smaller gap is for the smaller number, larger gap for larger number. Also, in an equal sign, both ends are equidistant.

  • Rebecca Zook on November 30th 1:19 pm

    Merry, it’s great to see you here! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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