Elementary Math: How to Teach Symbols

In order for your child to succeed in elementary school math, he or she needs to be familiar with basic elementary math symbols. These symbols are, in a sense, short cuts to explain math processes and ideas. Keep reading to see a list of symbols taught in elementary school, as well as suggestions for teaching them.

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Teaching Math Symbols to Elementary Students

What Symbols?

Symbols are 'pictures' or 'abstract figures' that represent and connect concrete mathematical concepts. Drawings of 2-D and 3-D shapes, such as circles and spheres, are one kind of symbol. However, the term is most often used with the markings that tell students whether to add, subtract, multiply or divide; they also indicate which functions need to be done first.

Symbols that are learned in grades K-5 include:

  • Add: The plus sign (+)
  • Subtract: The minus sign (-)
  • Multiply:
    • The times sign (x)
    • The dot or asterisk (• or *)
  • Divide:
    • The division sign (÷)
    • The slash (/) or a horizontal line as in fractions
  • Greater than and less than: ( > and < )
  • Percent (%)
  • Decimal point ( . )
  • Feet and inches ( ' and ' ' )
  • Parentheses, brackets and braces to group numbers in equations
  • Dollars and cents ($ and ¢)

Teaching Mathematical Symbols

When to Teach Symbols

A common approach to teaching math symbols is to first teach the concept concretely and then abstractly, using symbols. For example, students would begin by learning to add concrete objects, such as base-ten blocks or colored chips. Next, the math process would be formally taught. Finally, students would learn to concept abstractly, using only numbers and symbols.

Methods for Teaching Symbols

Once students learn a concept, you may find that teaching the related symbol is relatively easy because it's simply a matter of adding a new symbol to their toolbox. In other words, the hard part for most kids is understanding how to multiply, rather than understanding that the symbol x represents multiplication.

Use flashcards with several sets of the basic symbols. Hold up a card and have your child name the symbol and the math operation that coincides with it. Repeat every night to ensure that your child is internalizing the material.

Some symbols, like greater than (>) and less than (<), are easy to get confused. Use mnemonic devices to help your child keep these symbols straight. For instance, tell him or her that the sign is like an alligator who wants to eat the biggest number, so the 'mouth' should always face the number that is largest.

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