Development of Mathematical Language from an Early Age

Reading equations such as 4 + 2 (four plus two) or 5 – 1 (five minus one) quickly reveals that mathematics has its own language. But how can we introduce this language to preschool students? Although it’s easy for us to understand the meaning behind these terms, children have no mental model to help them do so (Origo Education, 2022). Unless they have a solid understanding behind these symbols, connecting them to real situations, the words themselves are just abstract notions.

Very young children might not understand what words like “subtract” or “minus” mean, but they know words that suggest or imply subtraction. For example, “I lost my toys.”, “I ate the ice cream,” “I spent the money.”  To help children develop mathematical ideas and express them naturally, you can start using math talk in your daily routines (games, snack time), encouraging children to use math talk, too. For instance, active play promotes the use of various math words and ideas, such as line, before, after, next, shorter, longer, and many more (Massachusetts Department of Early Education, 2014) .


To adopt strategies that will help children learn and use math language accurately and often, let’s look at the stages of mathematical language development:

  • Students Language Stage: We use stories to stimulate discussion in the classroom. The stories make use of expressions that children already know and use. You can find our fun recreaMATHS stories through our Digital Library.
  • Materials Language Stage: We use hands-on, concrete resources that children can touch and manipulate to understand math topics. The teacher can start the discussion with a question, for example, “If there are eight cupcakes on the plate, and we eat two, how many are left?”. In this stage, the language uses phrases as “take away” or “cover up”. The children could act out this scenario using concrete materials (such as stickers or even 3D Printed Cupcakes) to help them visualise the problem. You will soon have the opportunity to create your own objects using the recreaMATHS 3D Printed Math Manipulations.
  • Mathematical Language Stage: In this stage, we introduce the language of maths more precisely. Instead of  “take away”, teachers will start using the terms “subtract” or “minus”, linking the new language to the language used in the previous stages.
  • Symbolic Language Stage: As a final step, teachers would introduce the symbols (subtraction – , addition +) as an abbreviation for all the phrases they used before.

But be careful! Don’t proceed to the symbolic language stage too soon, as there is a risk that students have not developed the required connections yet.


  1. Massachusetts Department of Early Education (EEC), Engaging Children in Math, 2014 Available Online:
  2. Origo Education, How to Develop Students’ Mathematical Language, 2022