What Are the Basic Symbols?

Symbols are used in elementary math to represent operations and compare integers, decimals and fractions. Keep reading for tips on how to help your child learn and use these symbols.

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The Basic Symbols Your Child Needs to Know

Operation Symbols

Your child will learn the symbols for the 4 basic operations in elementary school. In first and second grade, he or she will learn the addition sign (+) and the subtraction sign (-). In third grade, your child will be introduced to the multiplication sign (x). Occasionally, your child might also see multiplication represented using a small dot or asterisk (e.g., 5 * 8). Third graders are also introduced to the division sign (÷). Then, in fourth and fifth grade, your child will use the long division bracket to complete division problems with multi-digit numbers.

If your child frequently confuses these symbols, try using flashcards at home to review them. It may also help if your child thinks about how the operations are related. For instance, addition and multiplication are similar in that they are both used to find the total amount. Let's say you have 6 chocolate chip cookies and 6 sugar cookies. If you wanted to find the total, you could add 6 + 6 to get 12. Alternatively, you could use multiplication because you have 2 groups of 6: 2 x 6 = 12.

Once your child understands this relationship, point out that the multiplication symbol (x) looks like the addition symbol (+) on its side. This mnemonic device may also help your child remember the symbols better.

Comparative Symbols

To compare integers, decimals and fractions, your child will be using the less than (<), greater than (>) and equal to (=) symbols. The less than (<) and greater than (>) symbols are sometimes hard to keep straight. Tell your child to think of the sign as an alligator that wants to eat the larger number. Therefore, the opening should always be facing the larger number.

To give your child practice using these symbols, create a number line from 0-10. Be sure to leave room in between the whole numbers. Then, ask your child to label two fractions, such as 3/4 and 3/8. Finally, tell your child to write down which fraction is larger using the 'greater than' symbol. For instance, he or she might write: 3/4 > 3/8. Depending on your child's ability level, you may include more challenging fractions, such as 5/4, or even decimals, like 4.75.

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