What’s the best way to teach addition to young children?

How often have you found your child doing maths in a different way to how you were taught at school? The maths curriculum varies a lot from one generation to the next, so much so that it can seem like your child is learning a whole different subject.

Let’s take teaching addition, a topic we all agree is essential to your child’s development in maths. With new methods coming out all the time, you can be left feeling lost as your child comes to you for help.

There’s lots of debate around how best to teach a particular topic. It can inflame our wildest passions as we defend the methods most familiar to us. It’s important to remember, though, that maths allows us to tackle problems in multiple ways.

Here are some simple but effective ideas on how to teach addition at home, which you can apply right away regardless of how you were taught at school.


Start with number bonds

Younger children are surrounded by opportunities to practice the basics of addition – apples, lego, going up the stairs…almost anything you can think of!  Your child begins by understanding that ‘add’ means to combine two groups of objects. Children will soon learn to pair numbers that sum to to 5, then 10, and upwards from there.  These are called number bonds and are very important because larger calculations usually depend on being fluent with them.

To practice number bonds around the house (let’s take 5), ask your child to select two groups of objects that will add up to that number. They may choose two apples and three bananas: 2 + 3 = 5.

Now ask if there is another way: one apple and four bananas (1 + 4 = 5) or even, if they’re feeling a tad crafty, no apples and five bananas (0 + 5 = 5). With larger totals like 10 or 20 there will be more combinations.


Use different representations

We’ve chosen apples and bananas because we’re a fruit-loving bunch, but numbers can be represented in so many different ways. Each representation is like a different lens into viewing that concept – the more the better. Here are some examples of different representations of adding two numbers to make 10:

Of course, you can do the same with large numbers – it may depend on how many apples you have at hand!


Bring maths into your everyday routines

Maths can feel like a strange language at times, so it’s important to remind your child of how it appears in everyday situations. You can make a list together of various household activities that involve addition – here’s one we’ve come up with:

You can also set up some activities around the house such as play shops (you can even use counters as payment if they’re not yet familiar with money – this is how our earliest ancestors did arithmetic, after all!). Once your child has encountered money, they can become a helping hand at the supermarket. Have them round prices to the nearest pound and keep track of your total cost. By the age of 9, most children will be able to use more formal, written methods for addition. They will also begin to use increasingly larger numbers as well as decimal numbers. You can set challenges around these concepts such as calculating the monthly bills or the cost of this week’s fruit and veg.

By embedding addition in concrete, day-to-day activities like this, you will ensure your child doesn’t become overly reliant on formal methods. Becoming familiar with these ‘real life’ addition activities will make maths more purposeful to your child.


Compare your different methods

If you do ever encounter a situation where your child is being taught a method you haven’t previously come across, don’t panic! It’s actually a great opportunity to test your child’s understanding of their method, and to engage them in a productive conversation.

First, get them to talk through the method, as if they are the teacher and you the student. There’s no better way for your child to consolidate their understanding of a concept than to teach it to you. You can then reverse roles and explain your own method back to them.

You can then discuss what is similar, and what is different, about each method. You might even indulge a healthy debate on which method is better. What counts as ‘better’ is up to you – perhaps it’s the most efficient method (fewest steps), or the one least likely to result in an error.

It’s okay to have preferences (maths taste buds, as we like to call them :)) but to also be aware that other methods exist and are valid in their own way. The more methods we learn for addition, the more flexibly we can apply that skill to different situations.


From adding to subtracting…

We have only mentioned addition, but it is important to learn subtraction at the same time because the two are so closely connected. We’ll explore subtraction in more detail in an upcoming blog so stay tuned!

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