Thinking & Learning

Addition and Subtraction 101

Now that your child is in elementary school, they’ll start building on their understanding of numbers to do more complex calculations, like adding and subtracting. And because of a recent shift in how math is taught, your child is going to be building conceptual knowledge of why numbers work the way they do—not just memorizing formulas like we did.

If you’ve visited your child’s classroom or seen any math materials come home, you might be thinking that math doesn’t look like it used to. You’re not wrong! Math is taught differently than it was when we were in school. This can be confusing for grown-ups (how am I supposed to help my kid at home when I don’t even know how to do this stuff?!), but rest assured, it’s for a good reason.

Today, kids are learning more of the underlying concepts behind math, to give them a firmer basis for the “how to” stuff like formulas and equations. While we just memorized the multiplication tables, our kids are learning what it means to multiply numbers—and that’s good for their ability to build on their learning and do more advanced math later on.

Read more about why math is taught differently now than when we were kids.

You’ll start to see your child developing this “conceptual understanding of math” right from kindergarten. These years are about developing a core understanding of how numbers work: how addition and subtraction work together, what place value means, and how to break a large number down into smaller numbers.

Here’s what to expect in these early elementary years:


In kindergarten: They’ll learn to recite numbers up to 100, count objects up to 20, and start comparing groups of objects by size (for example, they’ll recognize that a group of five objects is more than a group of two). They’ll also start to understand how numbers break down into smaller numbers, and they’ll begin adding and subtracting using pictures or objects, too.


In first grade: They’ll begin to understand the concept of place value, first by working with two-digit numbers. They’ll learn to add and subtract with numbers up to 20, solve basic word problems, and use different methods to complete addition and subtraction problems. They might start to learn how clocks and money work, too.


In second grade: They’ll understand place value more deeply, using numbers up to 1,000. They’ll also start solving more complex word problems, adding and subtracting with numbers up to 20 in their heads (and with larger numbers using visuals or objects), and solving problems using units of time and money.

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