How to Teach Subtraction to Little Kids: Four Proven Methods

Most adults can subtract numbers in a few seconds, even though it’s harder than addition. Sometimes, you can instantly solve 10 – 9 or 14 – 6 because you have learned subtraction facts by heart back in school.

Meanwhile, little kids do their best to grasp the basics. How to teach kids to calculate two-digit numbers in their minds correctly? You have to build the math basis.

This time, we will explain how to teach subtraction to young kids and what teaching strategies to avoid, so keep reading.

When Should Children Learn Subtraction?

Subtraction is among the first math concepts children begin to study alongside addition. Schools teach subtraction gradually. It usually happens as early as pre-kindergarten. At this time, teachers introduce preschoolers to gains and losses and math operations that reflect them.

Kids learn to associate numbers with items and realize they can calculate and express losses using math language.

Although common core standards do their best not to overwhelm students with complex subtraction theory all at once, children struggle with this operation anyway.

You can help your child learn subtraction by implementing simple teaching strategies. Keep reading to learn more about subtraction and four strategies to teach it to kindergartners and first-graders.

Browse Printable Subtraction Worksheets for Your Kids!

What Are Subtraction Facts?

You may have heard about subtraction facts – these are subtraction equations involving certain number combinations within tens, like 10 – 5 = 5.

Consider them common knowledge, such as that Earth orbits the Sun. Here are a few examples:

  • Subtracting zero from a number doesn’t change its value: 5 – 0 = 5; 9 – 0 = 9; 3 – 0 = 3 and so on.
  • Simple subtraction equations like: 10 – 3 = 7; 8 – 4 = 4; 14 – 6 = 8 and so on.

Why bother subtraction facts? It’s because memorizing them helps you subtract numbers in your head without thinking – you instantly know the answer when you see 10 – 5 or 6 – 3.

Fluency with subtraction facts allows you to calculate two-digit and three-digit numbers in your mind much faster.

Meanwhile, kids in elementary school haven’t practiced subtraction to the point when they know these facts by heart.

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Four Strategies for Teaching Subtraction to Beginners

Let’s get into four strategies to explain subtraction to your preschooler and first-grader.

Teaching Subtraction: First Grade and Kindergarten

Here is how teaching subtraction to kindergarten works:

  • Put a few apples on the table in front of your child.
  • Count them: one, two, three, four.
  • Explain that we can represent apples as numbers – four apples equals 4.
  • Take away two apples.
  • Count the remaining fruit once again: one, two.
  • We took away two from four, and two are left.
  • Now, let’s pretend apples are numbered: 4 – 2 = 2.

You can use Lego parts instead. For example, build an eight-brick-tall Lego tower. Remove three bricks, and it will become only five bricks tall.

As a result, your preschooler can take the following steps to subtract numbers:

  • Count objects in a group.
  • Take away objects from the group.
  • Count what’s left in the group.

Using this example, you can explain that subtraction equals taking away.

Practice Subtraction Vocabulary and Signs

Once your kids associate subtraction with taking away, they should learn subtraction vocabulary to switch to mental calculations.

Here are subtraction terms:

  • The minuend – it’s the number from which you take away something.
  • The subtrahend – it’s the number you take away from the minuend.
  • The difference – it’s the result of subtraction.

For 5 – 2 = 3, five is the minuend, two is the subtrahend, and three is the difference.

Mathematicians use the term “minus” and the associated sign “-“ for the action of taking away.

In math terms, we should pronounce 5 – 2 = 3 as “five minus two equals three.” Explain this theory to your child.

The more your kids practice these terms, the more fluent they become in subtraction.

Teaching First Grade Subtraction Using Number Lines

Number lines help first-graders master subtraction within 20. Here is how it works:

  • Draw a line and separate it with 20 equal segments. Number them from 1 to 20.
  • Explain that your kid can subtract by counting backward on the number line.

Let’s take 8 – 5 = 3 as an example. Find 8 on the number line. Then, jump five times back: 8 → 7 → 6 → 5 → 4 → 3. Consequently, 8 – 5 = 3.

how to teach substraction

Remember number lines fit preschoolers and first-graders as their math curriculum involves subtraction with numbers up to 20.

Subtracting any numbers beyond 20 with number lines will confuse your child.

Use Subtraction Games

Studies suggest that repetitive math drills yield the best results – help kids memorize math concepts and build computational fluency.

However, the problem is that students can’t stand solving exhausting math drills for a couple of hours three times a week. The good news is that you can give them enough math practice with fun subtraction math games. Entertaining characters, smooth animations, and built-in math drills will make math learning fun and easy.

Teaching Subtraction that Kills Motivation for Learning

You may stumble upon counterproductive subtraction teaching strategies that seem well-written and straightforward. Check them out below.

Never Overfeed Your Kid with Excessive Information

Many parents (and some teachers) fall into a trap while teaching subtraction – they believe that the more theory and tools they provide, the better their kids will subtract. That’s not always the case.

If you explain everything about subtraction in one sitting, you will leave your kid lost and confused. To teach something complex, you have to build a solid foundation in the first place.

Math feels like a foreign language to kids. It’s counterintuitive and sometimes drives them crazy (especially subtraction with regrouping). So you should provide your student with math knowledge based on their current understanding.

Don’t Teach Traditional Subtraction with Borrowing

We all know the column subtraction method. Teachers start introducing it in the third grade.

But many educators believe this method is inherently flawed. Let’s say you need to solve 22 – 9. You write 23 in the top column and 9 in the bottom column.

Then, you subtract 9 from 3, which will result in a negative number. But children learn negative numbers in the sixth grade. There is already a contradiction – students have to master a concept that requires knowledge they will access only in the future.

By doing so, teachers put a cart before the horse. That’s why tutors have to tell third-graders that they can’t subtract 9 from 3. Instead, they have to “borrow” 1 from 2.

As a result, 2 becomes 1, while 3 becomes 13. As an adult, you know it happens because you regroup 23 to 10 and 13.

But it is another flaw – children get confused because they have no solid place values knowledge.

As kids cross 2 and 3 out and write 1 and 13 on top of them, they don’t get 10 and 13. They get 113, and they have no idea why 113 – 9 = 14.

Lastly, subtraction with regrouping prevents kids from understanding place values because it emphasizes ones. It teaches kids to subtract ones from ones without getting the whole picture.

The question is, why should teachers force kids to subtract bigger numbers from smaller ones, cross digits out, write new ones, and shuffle between place values?

It’s so much unnecessary mental work. Why should we confuse our children and punish them for our flawed subtraction methods, then? We shouldn’t, so check how to teach subtraction to first-graders the right way below.

How to Explain Subtraction without Borrowing?

Students can fluently subtract without borrowing if you teach them place values and introduce them to negative numbers. First and second-graders don’t need to know all about negative numbers and their applications.

Tell them that they can get a negative difference.

They can subtract without borrowing by breaking down numbers based on their place values.

This way, your kid regroups place values, too. But they do so in an expanded form that illustrates what happens much better than column subtraction with regrouping:

  1. Split 23 into tens and ones: 10 (one-ten) and 13 (13 ones).
  2. Subtract ones: 13 – 9 = 4.
  3. Combine ones and tens: 10 + 4 = 14.

Brighterly’s Tutors Teach Your Child to Subtract

If your kid struggles with subtraction, negative numbers, or regrouping place values, you can delegate your teaching endeavors to professionals at Brighterly.

We teach efficient subtraction strategies within our math courses for kids. All you need to do is indicate your kid’s grade and math knowledge. Afterward, you can enroll your child in one of our math lesson packages. Consequently, your student will practice their computational skills, learn math concepts, and improve their knowledge of math operations under our kind supervision.

The Bottom Line

Learning subtraction is harder than addition, but children can do it without effort if you teach it the right way – start low and go slow. As long as you build a solid foundation, you can proceed to more complex subtraction topics. To do so, you can explain subtraction as taking away, use number lines, and practice subtraction vocabulary.

If you feel that math teaching bleeds you dry, you can delegate this task to experienced tutors at any time.

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