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How to Teach Subtraction to Kids

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When teaching math, you can’t take away subtraction!  Discover how to teach subtraction to kids in a way that will make it stick.

Teaching Kids How to Subtract

When learning math, children first learn the numbers and counting, and then they move on to the first operation of addition. 

This typically goes smoothly, since addition nicely dovetails with counting. 

Though subtraction is just the flipside of addition (in math terms: the inverse operation), children can struggle with this concept.

How to Teach Subtraction to Kids

How to Teach Subtraction with Manipulatives

Pave the way for subtraction success by making subtraction as concrete as possible.  Start with math that the child can touch and feel.  That means math manipulatives. 

You can find these little plastic counters in just about every shape.  My favorite manipulatives are teddy bear counters because you can easily use them in “math stories.” (For example, “9 teddy bears went to the pool.  4 got tired and left.  How many teddy bears are still at the pool?”)

You can also source your own manipulatives from what you have on hand.  Plastic bottle caps, dried-up marker tops, pennies, dried lima beans, and Cheerios can all work. 

You want counters that are all uniform in size and shape.

In the beginning, practice with math stories.  This cements the concept of subtraction as taking away. 

Then move on to showing the math sentence (e.g., 9 – 4 = 5) and then acting it out with the manipulatives. 

Always tie the abstract nature of math (using numbers as symbols) with the concrete (manipulatives kids can see and touch). 

Making the leap from concrete to abstract thinking is a neurological development jump that children make at different times.  Be patient; it will click.

How to Teach Subtraction to Kids

How to Teach Subtraction with a Number Line

Number lines are another great way to teach subtraction visually. 

You can draw a number line and imagine a frog or a rabbit hopping from number to number. 

When you add a number, the frog jumps to the right. 

When you subtract a number, the frog jumps to the left. 

This plastic number line has a sliding frog–so no drawing is necessary!

You can use a number line to act out a subtraction equation. 

If you have 9 – 4 = 5, you start the frog on the 9.  The first number is the starting position. 

Then because you have a minus sign, you will jump your frog to the left.  Draw the hops on the line and count 1, 2, 3, 4 hops to the left. 

Now, where is the frog?  On the 5.  That is your answer.

After doing this for a bit, the child will no longer need to think about frogs and can just imagine (or lightly pencil) the hops down the number line.

How to Teach Subtraction to Kids

How to Teach Subtraction with Flashcards

Once your child understands the concept of subtraction and can reason the answer of basic subtraction, you are ready to store that information in his brain so he can automatically recall it. 

This is an important step because it will stave off math frustration later. 

Having the math facts memorized will make more complex math problems go by much faster. 

Take the time to memorize them now. 

Start will subtraction sentences involving numbers less than 10, and then move on to numbers less than 20. 

You can make your own subtraction flashcards (use index cards) or buy them.  This set comes with an organizing ring (no rubber bands needed).  

You can do basic games with a flashcard drill. 

My kids liked the very simple game of “If you get the answer right, you keep the card.  If you don’t, I keep the card.  Let’s see who has a bigger stack at the end.” 

Then I would give them a second chance to “win” my cards by trying the ones in the missed pile. 

How to Teach Subtraction to Kids

How to Teach Subtraction with Games

You can review subtraction with math puzzles like this one that uses heart matching.  If your child likes board games, check out Sums in Space and Sum Swap.  Though their names imply addition, these games practice subtraction facts as well.

You can also use math apps to drill subtraction facts, such as Splash Learn, Monster Math, or Khan Academy Kids.  

Teaching Subtraction to Children

Don’t take away the fun when teaching subtraction!  Keep math marvelous by following these tips to teach subtraction to kids.  

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