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How We Can Help First Grade Students Understand Addition & Subtraction

by Karen LoBello

First Grade curriculum standards in most states include subtraction and addition facts for sums up to 20. Children need to make real world connections in order to strengthen their understanding of mathematical operations. Many math concepts are built on addition and subtraction, so it's important for first graders to start with a solid foundation. Incorporate hands-on addition and subtraction activities into your child's day and you'll give him a good start.

Use Body Movement

First graders like to be up and moving, and that energy can be channeled into enhancing addition and subtraction concepts. Use chalk to draw a number line from 0 to 20 on the sidewalk. Kids’ interest will peak if the number line winds around and looks like a ladder. The adult orally gives the child directions. For example, she tells him to stand on zero and take seven steps forward. Then she could ask, “If you walk five more steps, where will you land?” The child estimates and then adds five more steps to get to 12. The next challenge could be subtraction: “Start on 11 and take three steps backward. Where did you land?” Write a running list of matching equations on the sidewalk. The child and the adult can alternate roles.

Manipulate Objects

First graders are sensory learners; addition and subtraction makes more sense to them when they manipulate objects. Parents can use items such as beans, pieces of fruit or stuffed animals to teach a child to put together or take apart groups. This is the perfect time to reinforce mathematical vocabulary. “Joey, I have three apples and you have four oranges. How many pieces of fruit will we have if we put them all together?” Include subtraction problems: “Count out 12 buttons and place them on the table. If you give me 4 buttons, how many will you have left?” It's easier for a child to understand the relationship in a fact family, such as 3+5, 5+3, 8-5 and 8-3, when he puts together and takes apart groups of dried beans.

Tell Stories

Using her artistic flair, your child can practice addition and subtraction concepts as she depicts story problems. A large whiteboard and erasable markers will hold a first grader's interest for this activity. You'll also need some plastic toys, such as farm animals or dinosaurs. For example, if animals are used, the child could draw two separate areas such as a big barn and a grassy field on the whiteboard. As the parent tells a story, the child acts it out with the plastic chickens, placing them in the correct spots. “There are nine chickens playing in the field. Three of them go back to the barn, now there are six chickens in the field.” Underneath the pictures, the child writes a matching equation: 9 – 3 = 6.

Play Games

When children play games, they don't even realize they're learning. Use a standard die or make a cube for this game. A target number, such as 20, is decided ahead of time. Players take turns rolling the cube. They keep a running tally by adding each number to their previous total. The first person to reach 20 wins. Change the operation to subtraction and start with 20. The first person who reaches zero wins. Your child can also sort through dominoes to find ones that add up to a given number. For example, if he's looking for numbers that combine to make six, he might find a domino with two dots on one side and four on the other side or six dots on one side and none on the other.

About the Author

Karen LoBello is coauthor of “The Great PJ Elf Chase: A Christmas Eve Tradition.” She began writing in 2009, following a career as a Nevada teacher. LoBello holds a bachelor's degree in K-8 education, a secondary degree in early childhood education and a master's degree in computer education.

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