This is apparently the case when students are learning about inequalities such as x < 4 because I have seen many high school and college students struggle with this topic. The challenge is that teachers are often focused on the math symbols and steps as opposed to the math concepts. In contrast, below are Google Jamboard slides I use (you can make a copy and edit) to introduce the concept of inequalities.

First, I start with a topic of interest and possibly prior knowledge for the students (age to get a drivers license – below). I present the idea of an inequality in context before I show any symbols. In this case, students identify ages that “work”.

Then I introduce the symbol (below). In this case, I include equal to for the inequality (x > 16 vs x > 16). The students plot the same points then we discuss that there are many other ages that work. These ages are called solutions. We put a closed circle on all of the solutions. Then discuss that ages are not exactly whole numbers so we can plot points on all the decimals. Then we discuss that the solutions keep going to the right so we keep drawing dots to the right. There are so many dots we draw a “line” instead of all the dots.

Then we do the same steps for a situation in which the number listed (52 in the case below) is NOT a solution. The students put dots closer and closer to the number but cannot put a closed circle on 52 as a solution (top photo below). Then we present the symbols and talk about the number as a cutoff point that we get really close to but cannot touch. Therefore we use an open circle to show the number is NOT a solution.

This introduction can be followed by problems on a handout, ideally with context then without.