Understanding the Equal Sign

Challenge: Some children misperceive the equal sign as an instruction to compute rather than understanding the equal sign as a symbol that shows two expressions have the same value. These children will often place a 5 in the blank when given 2 + 3 = _ + 4. Practice with addition facts may actually strengthen this misconception if children are repeatedly given left to right “4 plus 2 makes 6” formatted facts. This can become a significant stumbling block in a child’s development of algebraic reasoning.

How to Address

  • Explicitly teach the equal sign means “the same value as.” In lower grades you may say, “6 marbles is the same as 4 marbles and 2 marbles.”
  • Do not use the input-output model to describe equations. Numbers are not placed into a machine with the answer spit out. 5 plus 4 does not “make” 9.
  • Use a variety equation formats. For example: 3 = 5 – 2 or 9 = 9 or 2 + 6 = 10 – 2
  • Have children represent a variety of equations with concrete objects.
  • Have children solve for unknowns in equations such as 8 + _ = 3 + 9.

Source: Teaching the Meaning of the Equal Sign to Children with Learning Disabilities: Moving from Concrete to Abstractions by Ruth Beatty and Joan Moss at the University of Toronto. Published in The Learning of Mathematics, NCTM’s 69th Yearbook, 2007.

 

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