Tag Archives: function transformations

Teaching Transformations

One of the most important new concepts in algebra 2 and beyond is the notion of transformation. That is, given the function f(x), we  can change any function’s position and growth by using the same instructions, much like giving directions from a map.

I’ve just introduced functions at this point in the calendar, so I’ve designed this activity to reinforce f(x) as a rule, that once a mapping is created, the mapping holds for all subsequent calls.

So just create a random table, one that’s simpler than anything I’d do in class. (One of the incredibly irritating things about blogging is that it’s insanely time-consuming to create images for publication that take next to no time at all to do on  a smartboard, but I never think of capturing images while on a smartboard.)

x f(x)
-3 2
-1 5
1 6
3 3
5 -1

That looks like this:


So then I ask if this is f(x), what would f(x+2) look like? Someone brave will always say “Two to the right”.

At that point, I always say “This is a totally logical guess and one of the most annoying things in math from this point on is that your guess is wrong.” (I originally developed the concept of a parabola as the product of two lines as another way of explaining this confusing relationship. Confusing to normal people. Mathies think it makes sense, but they’re weird.)

I add a column to the table. “We start with x. Then we add 2. Then we make the function call. Note the function call comes after the addition of the value. This is important. Now, we have three columns, but we are starting with our x and that’s still our input value. We graph it against the outer column, the output value for f(x+2).”

x x+2 f(x+2)
-3 -1 5
-1 1 6
1 3 3
3 5 -1

I’ll ask how we can bring the -3 back in, and after some mulling, they’ll suggest that I add -5 to the table. So I add:

-5 -3 2

to the bottom. But I’ve been plotting points all along, so the kids can see it’s not going as expected.


“Yes, indeed. I’ll be teaching this concept in many ways over the next few months, and I ask you to start wrapping your head around this now. We have many ways of envisioning this. When working with points as opposed to an entire function, it might be helpful to think of it this way: Suppose I’m standing at -3, and I want to add two. This has the effect of me reaching to the right on the number line and pulling the output value back to me–to the left, as it were.”

I go through this several times. Whether or not students remember everything I teach, I always want them to remember that at the time, they understood the concept.

“So if standing on -3 and reaching ahead is addition and move the whole function to the left, how would I move the whole function to the right?”

If I don’t get a ready chorus of “subtract?” I know that I need to try one more addition example, but I usually get a good response.

“Exactly. So let’s try that.”

x x-2 f(x-2)
-3 -5 NS
-1 -3 2
1 -1 5
3 1 6
5 3 3
7 5 -1


One year, I had a doubter who noticed that I’d made up these numbers. How did we know it’d work on any numbers? I told him I’d show him more later, but for now, imagine if I had a table like this:

x f(x)
1 1
2 2
3 3


Then I told him, “Now, imagine I put decimal values in there, fractions, whatever. Imagine that no matter how I change the x, the new value has an entry in the table and thus an output. So imagine I added 50. There’d be a value 50 ahead that I could reach forward or backwards.”

“In fact, we’ll eventually do all this with equations that are functions, instead of randomly generated points. But I start with points so you won’t forget that it works with any series of values that I can commit math on. Which isn’t all functions, of course, but that’s another story.”

“But if adding makes it go left and right, how do we make a function go up and down? Discuss that among yourselves for a minute or so.”

Sometimes a student will see that we’ve been changing x so far. Otherwise I’ll point it out.

“The function call itself is key to understanding this. If you change the value before you make the function call, then you are changing the input to the function. Simpler: you’re changing x before you call the function. But once the value comes out of the function, that is, once it’s no longer the input, it’s the….” I always wait for the class to chime in again–are they paying attention?


“Right. But output is no longer x. Output is”

“f of x!”

At this point, I call on a mid-level student. “So, Sanjana, up to now, we’ve been changing x before making the call to the function. See how the new column is in the middle? What could I do differently?”

And I wait until someone suggests making the column on the right, after the f(x).

x f(x) f(x)- 3
-3 2 -1
-1 5 2
1 6 3
3 3 0
5 -1 -3


I’m giving a skeletal version of this. Often the kids have whiteboards and are calculating all this along with me. I’ll give some quick learning checks in terms of moving to the right and left, up and down.

The primary learning objective for is to grasp the meaning of horizontal and vertical translations–soon to be known as h and k. But as an introduction, I define them in terms of function notation.



We usually end this activity by combining vertical and horizontal shifts.

What would f(x-2)+ 3 look like? Well, you’d need another column.

x x-2 f(x-2) f(x-2)+1
-3 -5 NS
-1 -3 2 5
1 -1 5 8
3 1 6 9
5 3 3 7
7 5 -1 2


I connect them this time just to show that one point is in both the original and the transformation.

Ultimately, this goes to transforming functions, not points. That’s the next unit, transforming parent functions. I have a colleague who teaches transformations entirely by points. I start down that path (not from his example, just because that’s how this works), but the purpose of transformations, pedagogically speaking, is for students to understand that entire equations can be changed at the unit level, without replotting points. At the same time, I want the students to know that the process begins at the point level.

Over time, the students start to understand what I often call inside and outside, or before and after. Changes to the input value affect the x, or the horizontal because they occur before the function is called. Changes to the output value affect the y, or the vertical, because they occur after the function is called. Introducing this on a point by point basis creates a memory for that.

At best, this lesson functions as more than just a graphing exercise, something to introduce vertical and horizontal shift. It should ideally give students an understanding of the algebra behind it. Later on, when they are asked to solve equations like:

Find f(a) = 32 for f(x)=3(x-2)2+5

Weaker students have trouble with understanding order of operations, and a memory of “inside” and “outside” the function can be helpful.

If I were writing algebra 1 curriculum, I’d throw out quadratics, introduce a few parent functions, and teach them function notation and simple transformations. It’s a complicated topic that they’ll see all the way through precalc, at least.

I’ll discuss stretch and its complexities in another post.