To investigate student difficulties in solving word problems in algebra, we carried out a teaching experiment involving 51 Indonesian students (12/13 year-old) who used a digital mathematics environment. The findings were backed up by an interview study, in which eighteen students (13/14 year-old) were involved. The perspective of mathematization, i.e., the activity to transform a problem into a symbolic mathematical problem, and to reorganize the mathematical system, was used to identify student difficulties on the topic of linear equations in one variable. The results show that formulating a mathematical model—evidenced by errors in formulating equations, schemas or diagrams—is the main difficulty. This highlights the importance of mathematization as a crucial process in the learning and teaching of algebra.