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Researchers have found that students often view the equal sign as a “do something” signal. What can we do to help students absorb the concept of balance that the equal sign represents?

The Common Core Standards for Grade 1 Mathematics provide us with a guide:

“Understand the meaning of the equal sign, and determine if equations involving addition and subtraction are true or false. For example, which of the following equations are true and which are false?

6 = 6

7 = 8 – 1

5 + 2 = 2 + 5

4 + 1 = 5 + 2.”

In order for young children to appreciate the balance inherent in an equation, they need to see different forms of number sentences, where numbers and operations can appear on either side of the equal sign:

1 + 3 = 4, but also 4 = 1 + 3

4 + 1 = 3 + 2, leading to 4 + 1 = __ + 2

In the second example above, many children will instinctively fill the blank with a 5, having become accustomed to the direction of “add 1 to 4” that they believe the equal sign represents. By offering students a variety of number sentences and focusing on the relationship between the two sides of the equal sign, students build the concept of balance and develop true understanding of equality.