Math Sentences

by Early Math Counts

We write math sentences from left to write and use mathematical symbols and words to communicate a mathematical problem (or situation). Once children are in grade school they will read and write math sentences for years.  So how do we prepare them for this eventuality?

I bet most of you already use math sentences with your children all of the time.  When you ask a child to set the table for snack and she comes back to report that she has finished, you might look over at her work and notice that there are 2 chairs that don’t have a place setting.  Rather than telling her that she needs to get 2 more place settings for the empty chairs, you probably say something like,

“Hmmmm. It looks like the table is almost set but not all the way.  How many plates did you put out and how many chairs are there?  So there are more chair than plates.  How many more plates to you need to make sure that every chair has a plate?”

You might also use a math sentence when you are taking attendance.

“If Johnny and Sara are absent,

how many children are absent?”


“There are 6 boys and 4 girls at school today.  How many children all together are at school today?

The main point of difference between how older children approach math sentences and how younger children approach them is that older children are reading them and answering on paper.  Younger children are exposed to math sentence because the adults verbally present them and then support them as they calculate the answers.

Most 3 years olds are not going to be able to add 6 and 4 in their heads.  The way that they will get to the answer is through scaffolded interactions, perhaps between themselves and the adult or between themselves and other children.   After posing the question about how many children are in school today, the teacher should then allow the children to try and come up with their own strategies for solving the equation first and the let them try to see if it works.  If, after a couple of attempts, it is still unclear, the teacher can provide a strategy, i.e., “Let’s count all of the children together, both the boys and the girls, to find out,” and then point to each child as s/he is assigned a number.  Remember to stress that the last number you say is the total.

Try and think of number sentences as more than simply asking questions or making statements about math and number, and more as a “plan of action” for including more math opportunities into your interactions with your children.  This intentionality will force you to consider ways to present the problems and then support the children as they figure out the answers.

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