, Volume 42, Issue 3, pp 237-268

Signs and meanings in students' emergent algebraic thinking: A semiotic analysis

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The purpose of this article, which is part of a longitudinal classroom research about students' algebraic symbolizations, is twofold: (1) to investigate the way students use signs and endow them with meaning in their very first encounter with the algebraic generalization of patterns and(2) to provide accounts about the students' emergent algebraic thinking. The research draws from Vygotsky's historical-cultural school of psychology, on the one hand, and from Bakhtin and Voloshinov's theory of discourse on the other, and is grounded in a semiotic-cultural theoretical framework in which algebraic thinking is considered as a sign-mediated cognitive praxis. Within this theoretical framework, the students' algebraic activity is investigated in the interaction of the individual's subjectivity and the social means of semiotic objectification. An ethnographic qualitative methodology, supported by historic, epistemological research, ensured the design and interpretation of a set of teaching activities. The paper focuses on the discussion held by a small group of students of which an interpretative, situated discourse analysis is provided. The results shed some light on the students' production of (oral and written) signs and their meanings as they engage in the construction of expressions of mathematical generality and on the social nature of their emergent algebraic thinking.