# Early Childhood

Corner Children’s
Understanding of
Equality: A Foundation
for Algebra
M
any states and school districts, as esting to explore what children under-
well as Principles and Standards for stand about equality and the equals sign.
School Mathematics: Discussion At the start of this project, many teach-
Draft (NCTM 1998), recommend that al- ers asked their students to solve the fol-
gebra be taught in the early childhood lowing problem:
years. Although young children often
understand much more than traditionally 8+4=c+5
thought, adults can have difficulty concep-
tualizing what would constitute appropri- At first, this problem looked trivial to
ate algebra for the early childhood years. many teachers. One sixth-grade teacher,
Fifteen teachers and three university re- for example, said, “Sure, I will help you
searchers are currently involved in a out and give this problem to my students,
project to define what alge- but I have no idea why this will be of in-
bra instruction can and terest to you.” This teacher found that
should be for young chil- all twenty-four of her students thought
Karen P. Falkner, that 12 was the answer that should go in
Linda Levi, and cuss the concept of equality, the box. She found this result so interest-
Thomas P. Carpenter which is a crucial idea for ing that before we had a chance to check
developing algebraic reason- back with her, she had the other sixth-
ing in young children. grade teachers at her school give this prob-
lem to their students. As shown in table
1, all 145 sixth-grade students given this
Misconceptions about the problem thought that either 12 or 17
Equals Sign should go in the box.
Even though teachers frequently use the Why did so many children have
equals sign with their students, it is inter- trouble with this problem? Clearly, chil-
dren have a limited understanding of
Karen Falkner, kfalkner@madison.k12.wi.us, is a primary-grade equality and the equals sign if they think
teacher at Lapham Elementary School, Madison, WI 53703. She is that 12 or 17 is the answer that goes in
currently participating in a study of young children’s algebraic the box. Many young children do, how-
thinking. Linda Levi, llevi@facstaff.wisc.edu, and Thomas Carpenter, ever, understand how to model a situa-
tpcarpen@facstaff.wisc.edu, are affiliated with the Wisconsin Center tion that involves making things equal.
for Educational Research, Madison, WI 53706. They both study the For example, Mary Jo Yttri, a kindergar-
development of young children’s algebraic thinking. ten teacher, gave her students the prob-
lem 4 + 5 = c + 6. All the children
Edited by Kate Kline, kate.kline@wmich.edu, Department of Math-
thought that 9 should go in the box. Yttri
ematics, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. This
then modeled this situation with the chil-
dren. Together, they made a stack of four
column addresses the early childhood teacher’s need to support young
cubes, then a stack of five cubes. In an-
children’s emerging mathematics understandings and skills in a other space, they made stacks of nine and
context that conforms with current knowledge about the ways that six cubes. Yttri asked the children if each
young children — pre-K-K — learn mathematics. Readers are arrangement had the same number of
encouraged to send manuscripts for this section to the editor.

232 TEACHING CHILDREN MATHEMATICS