Why kids have trouble understanding math symbols

By Julie Rawe

Kids aren’t born knowing what math symbols mean. In preschool they learn to count out loud: “One, two, three, four.” As they get older, they learn to write numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4. But understanding that “4” represents a group of four things? That’s an abstract idea that can be hard to learn.

A math symbol stands for something — whether it’s a quantity, like four, or an arithmetic operation to carry out, like multiplication. But there’s nothing about the way math symbols look that helps explain what they mean or what you should do with them.

All kids need practice and time to learn how to use math symbols. Some kids need extra support to master these concepts.

Kids develop at different rates. This means they learn math skills at different rates, too. Keep reading to see what trouble understanding math symbols can look like — and when kids might need extra support.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Daniel Ansari, PhD is a professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University, Canada.