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How to teach subtraction

Updated on October 21, 2010

Counting on - a useful mental method for subtraction

Children usually can learn to add with few difficulties, even where there is the difficult "carrying over".  Many have difficulties with a formal written method for subtraction (or taking away). The mental method of "counting on" gives a good representation of one of the meanings of subtraction that children may find difficult, namely "find the difference between two numbers" I find that this is a much more difficult concept than "here is a number, now "take away" this number from it"

The method known as "counting on" needs children to have a basic idea of a number line. To do the sum 134 - 27 put down both numbers on this line.

27 ............................................................ 134

Now ask what is the next whole number. Answer "30" How do we get from 27? Add 3.

How do we get from 30 to 130? Add 100.

How do we get from 130 to 134? Add 4

How do we get from 27 to 134? 3 + 100 + 4 = 107

This method is so simple that a child can do quite complex subtraction, including numbers where "borrowing" would be needed in a written method, in their heads and even counting on their fingers. Children who really struggle with maths could manage with this method even if they never master a formal method. This is not, of course, ideal but as a life skill it could do! I have found that children in Years 5 and 6 (age 10 and 11) really like this method, and with mathematically challenged pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 it builds confidence, particularly when they can do the sums in their heads.


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    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Interesting methodology. You are teaching the very beginnings of algebra here, not just subtraction.

      That could be of great value, as when algebra does formally come along a child would already have a good feel of how it works and why.

    • The Old Hack profile image

      The Old Hack 8 years ago

      Informative Hub. I can Truly say that I have learnt something today. Thank you.