Top 3 Math Strategies to Help Your Kid Understand Subtraction

Subtraction facts in wall hanger

Are you looking for ways to help your kid build their subtraction fact fluency and solve word problems in a hands-on way? Then you’ve come to the right place! Here’s our selection of the top three engaging subtraction strategies that will help your first-grader understand subtraction. These fun activity ideas are routinely used by top math home tutors and at math tuition centers in and around Singapore. Our helpful subtraction tips and strategies will help you kid thrive in first grade!

How to use these strategies
We suggest giving your kid short daily experiences with these subtraction strategies and activities. A regular and consistent ten-minute slot every day is more effective than longer slots that take place intermittently. Try to build these activities into daily situations such as shopping trips, putting clothes away, setting the table and so on. Before long, your child will be well on their way to understanding subtraction in first grade.

Strategy #1. Use objects to represent numbers
The first strategy that kids learn is counting, adding and subtracting using their fingers. This is great as it means they always have something there to use, and it can help them solve basic subtraction sums within 10. However, the most helpful strategy you can teach your kid is using small objects to solve equations.

The objects could be anything, such as blocks, cubes, counting bears, counters or even popsicle sticks. This hands-on approach is great for learners who prefer a sensory approach to learning as they can touch and feel manipulatives.

Unlike addition where you are always putting something more or using more objects at the end of the equation compared with the beginning, subtraction can be a tougher concept to grasp. We suggest using a ten frame and rolling balls of PlayDoh or modeling clay. Teach your kid that the number after the subtraction sign is how many balls they need to squash away – they’ll love it!

Play dough and a ten frame is a great way to practice subtraction!
Image Credit: Proud to be Primary

For example, let’s say you are teaching your kid how to solve the equation ‘9 – 5’. Have them roll nine balls and place them on a ten frame or a 20 frame. Explain that the number five is how many balls they need to smash, then let them smash away!

To reinforce this subtraction strategy, have them count aloud as they smash; “One, two, three, four, five”. Then, ask them “How many balls are left?” or “How many balls aren’t smashed?” This will cement the concept that subtraction is all about how many are left at the end.

If you don’t have or don’t want to use PlayDoh, you can use the same basic approach with blocks or connecting cubes. Simply ask your child to remove the cubes, instead of smashing the balls!

Connecting cubes are a sure-fire way to help your kid master subtraction
Image Credit: Proud to be Primary

Strategy #2. Flashcards
Of all the resources used by math home tutors and at math tuition centers in Singapore, none are more popular or more effective than flashcards. Using flashcards is one of the best ways of helping your child understand subtraction and develop their number sense quickly.

What are flashcards?
If you haven’t heard this term before, a ‘flashcard’ is any small card used for teaching. A flashcard can contain anything that the teacher wants to focus on, including words, numbers, diagrams or illustrations. Most good book stores sell flashcards but you can also download them and print them, or just hand-write your own using a pen and paper.

Here are some of the top games you can play with flashcards.

#1. Match
Get two sets of identical subtraction flashcards that focus on the subtraction equations you want to teach. Mix them up and have your child match them into pairs. For example, ‘2 + 2 = 4’ would match with ‘2 + 2 = 4’, and so on.

#2. Pelmanism
A slightly more difficult variation is the memory game known as pelmanism. Start with two sets of five identical flash cards and lay them face down in a five by five grid. Ask your child to turn over two cards. If they match, they can keep them, if they don’t match they need to turn them back over. This helps develop their visual memory as they need to remember where specific cards were in order to form matching pairs.

#3. Math fact sort
Another way to sort math cards is to have your kid sort math facts under the correct answer. You can do this on a table or buy a special pocket chart that holds the cards in a row. Let’s say you want to help your child learn all the ways to make number six. They would have to find all of the subtraction flash cards that equal six and line them up under the answer.

Number organizers help kids memorize subtraction facts with ease
Image Credit: Proud to be Primary

Strategy #3. The ‘Flip-Flop’ Strategy
Many kids find that understanding subtraction takes a little longer than addition. That’s why our third strategy is so powerful; it builds on the knowledge and understanding that they already have!

You see, addition equations have an inverse relationship with subtraction equations. Pointing this out to kids can dramatically reduce the time it takes them to understand subtraction.

The first step is to practice decomposing numbers into their parts. Let’s use the example 7. Your kid is likely already comfortable with telling you the addition equations that make seven, such as ‘1 + 6’, ‘2 + 5’ and ‘3 + 4’. Build on this knowledge by having them model these number bonds with blocks or objects.

When they see that five and two make seven, and can visualize it with blocks, you can ask them, “So if I have seven and I take away five, how many do I have left?”. If they struggle, have them physically remove the blocks from in front of them and place them to one side.

You can then decompose the number seven in other ways. For example, ask “I have seven blocks and take away two, how many are left?”.

This strategy helps reinforce the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction equations and helps your kid understand subtraction far faster.

Subtraction frames and small toys make take-away practices a breeze!
Image Credit: Proud to be Primary

If your child is struggling to understand subtraction, hopefully these activities will help! We recommend spending five to ten minutes every day working on subtraction using these fun approaches until your child masters the techniques.

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