Key points:

  • “Early algebraic thinking in a primary context is not about introducing formal algebraic concepts into the classroom but involves reconsidering how we think about arithmetic.”
  • “arithmetic thinking focuses on product (a focus on arithmetic as a computational tool) and algebraic thinking focuses on process (a focus on the structure of arithmetic) (Malara & Navarra, 2003)”
  • “The aim was to assist 5 year-olds to come to an understanding of the structure of equations, and in particular the use of the equal sign.”
  • “When asked to find the unknown for 7 + 8 = ? + 9, many students express this as 7 + 8 = 15 + 9 = 24.”
  • “Three add 2 is different from 4 add 2. There is a different number on each side. Three add 2 is not equal to 4 add 2. It is different from 4 add 2″. Arithmetic thinking is required when computing the value of the two expressions. Algebraic thinking is required when placing the appropriate language between the expressions. Equals is only applicable if the two expressions are equivalent, that is, have the same value.”
  • “It is interesting that both Brianna and Ethan spontaneously introduced symbols as short hand for the object: p for pears and b for bananas or an iconic picture of each. In the secondary context this is commonly referred to ‘fruit salad’ algebra where the letter stands for an object instead of variable, and is thinking that we want to discourage. For example, a common misconception in the secondary context is that 3a + 3b stands for 3 apples and 3 bananas instead of a and b standing for any number. In the early years it is important to make the distinction between how we verbally describe number problems and how we represent these problems with symbols. While we say, “Three cars and five trucks,” the convention is to represent this as 3 and 5. Number sentences are made up of numbers.”


  • Malara, N., Navarra, G. (2003) ‘ArAl Project: Arithmetic pathways towards favouring pre-algebraic thinking.’ Bologna, Italy: Pitagora Editrice.
  • Warren, E., Mollinson, A., Oestrich, K. (2009) ‘Equivalence and Equations in Early Years Classrooms.’ Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, Vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 10-12

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