An investigation of learners' symbol sense and interpretation of letters in early algebraic learning

Naidoo, Kona Sagaren Kanakasaby
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Research in early algebra is critical because a smooth transition from arithmetic to algebra will influence future algebra learning that is central to school mathematics. This study investigated learners’ interpretation of letters in different levels of generalised arithmetic activities. Thirty grade nine learners from one inner city school participated in this study. All learners engaged with seventeen paper and pencil tasks encompassing six different interpretations of letters and six learners were then interviewed. Analysis of the data showed that the overall performance of learners was very poor and most learners have not been successful in making the transition from arithmetic to algebra. Learner responses suggested a strong arithmetical influence and a poor understanding of algebraic letter and basic manipulative skills. Throughout the data a number of misconceptions surfaced which suggested that most learners in this sample were lacking ‘symbol sense’.
Algebra, Early algebra, Generalised arithmetic, Transition from arithmetic to algebra, 'Symbol sense', Constructivism, Misconceptions, Interpretation of letters, Levels of understanding, Children's errors and strategies