Move around small objects like beads or cotton balls so kids see how the quantities change as they add two sets together or take some away. This can help kids understand numbers and how math operations work.

Quick tip 2

Say number sentences out loud.

Say number sentences out loud.

Ask kids to use their own words to say or write a number sentence like 1 + 5 < 7. If they struggle to translate “<” into words, talk about the concept of “is less than” and the symbol that represents it.

Quick tip 3

Show the same number in three ways.

Show the same number in three ways.

Make sure kids know “4” means the same thing as “four” as well as a set of four objects. Download these number puzzles to help kids practice different ways of representing numbers.

Quick tip 4

Make a reminder chart.

Make a reminder chart.

Help kids make a chart that reminds them what each math symbol stands for. Put number names (“six”) next to written numerals (“6”). Include math signs, like “>” alongside “is greater than.” Make the chart easy for kids to find when they need it.

Quick tip 5

Find an example math problem.

Find an example math problem.

Some kids may know that signs like × and ÷ are telling them to multiply and divide. But they might not be sure what steps are involved. Find a similar problem in a textbook or online that shows the steps to solve it.

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.

Dive deeper

Signs that kids struggle with math symbols

All kids need time and practice to learn how math symbols represent quantities. Here are signs that kids may be struggling with these concepts:

Counting on fingers long after classmates have switched to pencil and paper

Remembering math facts but struggling with problems that have steps, like “carry the 1”

Not being sure if two quantities are equal, like 2 + 4 = 3 + 3

Having trouble comparing fractions and understanding that ¼ is smaller than ½ (even though 4 is bigger than 2)

One thing that’s not a sign young kids are having trouble understanding math symbols: writing 2’s and 3’s backwards. With time and practice, most kids learn which way numbers (and letters) go.

What’s so tricky about learning the meaning of math symbols? Part of the answer involves learning how to generalize. Kids need to learn that the symbol “4” can mean four apples, four inches, four days — four of anything.

That’s a big idea. Kids need to be explicitly taught that “4” means a group of four. They also need to be taught that “4” means the group is larger than a group of three and smaller than a group of five.

Learn more about an important group of math skills called number sense.

Trouble shifting from concrete to abstract

Many schools teach young kids to solve math problems using small objects like buttons or Popsicle sticks. (Teachers might call these objects manipulatives.) Moving them around helps kids think about adding or subtracting quantities.

But as kids get older, they have to solve math problems using written numbers. Maybe they can easily solve an addition problem by combining two bundles of Popsicle sticks. But write that problem as an equation (10 + 10 = _ ) and kids may not be sure what each symbol means.

Some kids think the = sign means “that is” rather than “equals.” They may be confusing an equation with a series of steps.

For example, they may do OK with 3 + 2 = 5 because they read it as “When you add three plus two, that adds up to five.” But this kind of thinking can cause problems when the equation is flipped around. Kids may not know how to interpret 5 = 3 + 2. They may try to keep thinking about it as a series of steps: “When you start with five, you end up with three plus two.”

Kids develop math skills over time. Struggling with a new skill might just mean a child needs more time and practice to learn it.

But if a child has been struggling for a while, it may be time to ask for extra help. If kids aren’t solid on what math symbols mean, they’ll have a tough time doing things like adding and subtracting.