Tag Archives: Subtraction

3rd Grade Subtraction Number Talk

So, this year is tough….getting to know students and content across all grade levels is so exciting but always leaves me with so many questions! As much as I use the CCSS as a guide, I go in to every class wondering what students at this grade know, wondering how they talk about it, and wondering how to structure activities to encourage connections. These are all things I took for granted as a 5th grade teacher.

Today I went in and did a subtraction number talk with a 3rd grade teacher. I did a string starting with the problem: 23 – 19 and all of the other problems were subtracting a number with a 9 in the ones place. I thought I could possibly get adding up, removal and/or compensation strategies. For this problem and the following two, I got at least 3 or 4 different answers and a lot of strategies, some correct others not. The most common was subtracting tens (20-10 = 10) and then incorrectly subtracting ones (9-3=6) and arriving at 16 as their answer. Correct or not, I absolutely loved their openness to sharing and looking for errors in their thinking, it was fantastic! Their thinking was definitely not anything I could even begin to really string together because they were really all over the place so all I can focus on now is where to go from here?

The only common thread I saw was the majority of the students were “number pulling and operating” without seeming to think about the numbers first, what was happening or reasonableness. So, my question now is, Is there a type of number talk that would take the focus off of the numbers for a bit and allow students to think about what relationship the pictures have? I don’t know if this makes much sense but I am playing around with these images, but struggling with the wording…

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If I flashed the first one, How many did you see? How did you see them?

Flash the second one, What changed? What is the difference? <—–(I like this one suggested by the awesome 3rd grade teacher) Can you write an equation to represent the change?

I am thinking we could get 20 – 5 = 15 or 15 + 5 = 20.

Next this..same questions.

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Now on this one, 30 – 11 = 19, I think I may bring up the strategy they used today, 30 – 10 = 20 and 1-0 = 1, leaving us with the answer of 21 and see what they think? I can’t tell if that would be helpful or not?? Would love thoughts.

Also, I cannot decide whether to end with a number expression and ask them what the first image looked like and what is different in the second and what the equation would be? Still thinking on this one too.

Trying it out tomorrow and will keep you posted, however I couldn’t sign off without one piece of student work that I loved. I left them today with 36 – 19 in two ways if they could. This student originally got 23 (by the means I described above) but then did the number line and arrived at 17. He went back to the first and realized that 20 and -3 gave him 17, not 23. IMG_0661

When I asked him how he knew it was 17, he said it was like having something 20 feet above the ground and it goes down 3 feet. It has 17 above ground still. I asked him to try and capture that and this is the beautiful piece of work I got…


Looking forward to seeing this bunch tomorrow!


The Meaning of Subtraction

After a Number Talk a couple of days ago, I blogged about my students’ thoughts around a subtraction problem. Instead of being a talk about subtraction strategies, as I anticipated, it ended up more of a talk about the meanings of subtraction.

After class, I was curious where these meanings of subtraction arise in our curriculum and found this in the 3rd grade Investigations’ Teacher Notes:

gr3Now being in 5th grade, I began asking myself a bunch of questions…If these subtraction meanings arise in 3rd grade, do we ever have students explicitly investigate them? Once they have an efficient strategy to subtract, do we just move on? Do we think that the meanings of subtraction really do not matter if they can read a context and solve for the solution?

After reflecting on my own practice, I honestly think it is a combination of all of these things. I am completely guilty of being satisfied if students are able to understand how to solve a problem, with or without a context, and explain their reasoning. I actually feel quite great about student understandings in that moment, however, I have really seen the importance of having students make deeper connections, create conjectures and justify claims/generalizations. It truly pushes them to think about a deeper meaning of operations and demonstrates the depth of their understanding in developing proof of their thinking.

The day after the Number Talk, I had the class split into two groups and each focused on writing a context that would lend itself to being solved using one of the two strategies for 400-274.

IMG_0508_2After about 5 minutes, I had each group share their context and they did just what I was hoping. The group with the top strategy had a few contexts that all involved having something and then giving something away or losing something. The bottom strategy had a context involving having $400 and leaving the store with $126 and asked to find how much they spent. The second was much more difficult because they kept arguing (in a great way) that it was an adding up problem, not subtraction.

I had each group read their context aloud twice. The first time I could tell everyone was listening to see if it could be solved using subtraction so for the second time, I gave them a listening focus. I asked them to listen for how the two contexts were different, was something different happening in each? After reading them aloud once more, I had them journal what they thought, were they the same type of subtraction problem or different? (They referred to the problems by the student’s name whose strategy it matched).

I loved this student’s wording of the difference as “things happen”



IMG_0530_2There was an overwhelming “what is left” and “what the middle piece is” theme among all of the responses as the main difference between the two contexts. Knowing that removal is their primary way in which to think about subtraction, we chatted more about this missing piece and they agreed that they think about that context more as adding up, which makes complete sense to me. It was so nice to hear them talking about the way a context can influence how you use subtraction or addition and how it really was doing the same thing.

A lone student also brought out the constant difference meaning of subtraction during the Number Talk, however he was losing the class in his explanation that day. I didn’t want to lose this idea, so while the others worked on the contexts, I asked him if he minded elaborating more on his idea and creating a visual proof for the class to better explain his reasoning. I got this…

IMG_0521_2He did such a great job of showing two different representations, but I was secretly hoping for a number line with a “shift” in the numbers to really show constant difference. He instead showed removal with same difference. I adore the top piece and just as I was thinking of how we could make that more visual for the class today, Simon (of course) responded with a brilliant visual…

At the beginning of class today, I asked the student who wrote the response above, what he thought about this visual and he said, “Well, that is just like what I was saying.” I asked him if he could work on a claim for the way he is thinking about subtraction while I asked the rest of the class to see if they could think of a claim that this representation would support. This was such an interesting reversal of the usual process I use with student claims, but I was excited to try it out!

I got many ideas in terms of the bars such as these…

IMG_0550IMG_0552I then showed them Simon’s second idea…

…and asked them to think of these more as subtraction problems and see what they could come up with in terms of noticings and/or generalizations. I got some awesome responses! IMG_0550 - Version 2

IMG_0548Then we shared the original student’s claim he worked on to see if it matched their thinking…

IMG_0553I love that he was not only thinking about what was happening in the problem, but also why he would want to use this in order to make a problem easier to solve.

These lessons were a beautiful way to work forward and backward in making claims. Thank you Simon for being so amazing, as always, it was not only great learning, but great fun!

My students never fail to leave me with something to think about. One student said he thought of “partial differences” and here is how he explained it (definitely not what I thought when he said the term)

IMG_0547My next task is thinking of questions to ask him about this….


Subtraction Number Talk: My Curiosity Today…

Subtraction is the one operation that every time it arises in class, throws one more thing for me to think about into the mix. I have two recent posts around decimal subtraction, here and here, and I continue to work with whole number subtraction through number talks.

Today, I only had time for two problems in the Number Talk due to testing 😦 The first problem was 400 – 349. I was most anticipating students would subtract 50 and add one back or add up from the 349 to the 400 (1+50) to arrive at the answer of 51.  I was surprised when a student said he “subtracted 100 – 49 to get 51 and knew that would be the same answer because if you added 300 to both numbers it would give you the same problem, so the same answer.” This made me think of a distance model on a number line, but I completely missed that opportunity and moved into the next problem. Seeing what happened next, it may have either made one strategy more clear or completely caused us to miss out on the conversation that followed.

Problem #2: 400 – 274

IMG_0502_2The student, “M”, on the right subtracted to find the distance between 400 and 274, however did not explain it that way so it left many students wondering how she knew what to subtract. I had a student ask her if that was her second strategy because she seems to have subtracted the answer from the 400.

The student, “C”, on the left solved it the way the majority of the class did, removal in part with some compensation at the end. Before he started explaining, he prefaced with, “I did it pretty much like M.” When he finished, he realized it was not the same and was confused as to where “M” came out with the same answer. He even exclaimed that, ‘I think she got the answer by mistake.”

“M” knew exactly what she did, however, I didn’t let her explain yet because I wanted the rest of the class to think about it a bit more. I told her she would be able to explain it tomorrow after we chat a bit more with it. I had them all end the class with a journal entry (surprising, right?:) I asked them what they understood, saw happening in each, or were not too sure about. It is just the most beautiful thing to read the honesty and reflection in their writings.

Some students could see what was happening…(even though it seems some tables have the vocabulary a little mixed up:)

IMG_0509_2IMG_0506_3Some left confused…


Some had a really interesting way of thinking about it…

IMG_0505_3And then there was “M” who cannot wait to share tomorrow…


Now, the question is, how to approach this tomorrow? I am thinking I would love three groups, one who subtracted in parts, one who found the distance by subtracting back to the minuend, and one group who adjusted the subtrahend and minuend to find the distance between. Have them create a context and representation that shows what they did (still working within the same problem they all have the same answer for) and do a share. I would like the share to go in the exact order of the groups I just listed above. Crossing my fingers I have time to talk some more math with them tomorrow, a silent classroom is probably more torture for me than them 🙂


Subtraction Is So Conceptual

Every year, across all grade levels, I hear (and observe) subtraction being a difficult concept for students. Not just a difficult calculation, but concept. I am not talking about reading a context and knowing if subtraction could be a way to solve it, but instead, what is happening when you subtract and how does a change in the subtrahend and minuend impact the difference? I think students can learn a procedure to “operate” with subtraction (as with any operation), but I always question the conceptual understanding behind their work. I also think that we, as teachers, sometimes make some assumptions about student understanding of subtraction when all of their answers are coming out correctly. It feels really nice to see students read a task and solve it correctly with subtraction, but have they thought about whether the answer makes sense or could they explain what would happen to the answer if I increased or decreased one of the numbers in the problem? This could completely be my own wondering because, I admit,  I tend to question a lot of my students’ understandings until I hear them talking about the idea or working through it in their journals. To get a better understanding of their thinking and attempt to help them move forward in their thinking, I do Number Talks a lot and most recently have really started to listen and think more about what makes subtraction so difficult for them.

I have a few ideas based on my observations of the students’ conversations and many lie in the fact that we do much relational thinking about addition and subtraction that students assume that the numbers operate in the same manner.

1- Commutativity. When adding, it is so convenient that you could add the tens and ones in either order and still end with the same answer. For example, when adding 34 + 63 I could add (30+60)+(3+4) and still result in the same answer. Even if it changed the context of the problem, it would still result in the correct answer. Whereas, with subtraction if I was subtracting 63-34, I can’t just do (60-30) + (4-3). It now creates a different problem but it is something that students do ALL of the time in order to take a smaller number from a larger one. Which is what I see happening here with the quick subtraction problem I gave students to solve last week before we started looking deeper into decimal subtraction.I just wanted to get a look at what they were thinking, as was not surprised to see this on many papers.


2 – Number Adjustments and the Effect on the Context. This comes out A LOT in our talks. When they are adding, they love to compensate and adjust the addends to make an easier problem. For example, 49 + 33, students would take one from the 33 to give to the 49 to make an easier problem of 50 + 32. Again, it would change the context of the problem they were solving, however not impact the result. Now given 49 – 33, giving 1 to the 49 from the 33 leaves you with 50 – 32 and completely changes the context. Given a removal problem, you are starting with more, but taking away less. Or given a distance problem, you have moved the starting and ending point in opposite directions. There is SO much context in a subtraction problem in just the number adjustments themselves.

3 – Number Adjustments and the Effect on the Outcome. When adding, students understand how adjusting one of the addends affects the solution. If I add one more to this addend it increases the sum by one or if I decrease both addends by 1, the sum will decrease by 2. Again, the context can come into play here, but the students get pretty comfortable with the numbers, stripped of context, in understanding this. Now, subtraction is not so nice in that way. Again, context is SO important. 34 – 12 = 22. If I take one from the 34, making the problem 33 – 12 = 21, it works in the way the students know addition works. However, taking 1 from the 12, making the problem 34 – 11 = 23, it does not. They are so perplexed when they try this and it instead adds to the original difference.

Now, because students do not feel as comfortable with subtraction, I also see less willingness to reach outside of the standard algorithm once they “get it to work”. I appreciate the use of the algorithm, however after this quick formative, I had the feeling that there was some conceptual understanding missing that would really impact our decimal work. Because of this, I decided to start with an Investigations story problem on our grid paper.

“Mercedes had 1.86 grams of gold. She used 0.73 gram of it in a piece of jewelry. How much gold does she have left?

I asked them what this story would look like on grids and I got quite a variety of thoughts but I was very surprised to see students putting all three numbers (the two in the problem and the difference) on three separate grids.

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I did have a quick realization of the difference between “Show this problem on the grids” and “Show how this story looks on the grids?”

These showed the STORY….

This student taped the removed part over top of what she had, to leave the answer in purple:


This student set the whole aside because she knew she didn’t need to touch it and dealt with the hundredths.


These involved some taking away of pieces to leave them with the answer.


This student changed the whole to be the tenth, but represented each number in the equation.

IMG_9667To see if they made a connection between what they had done on their grids to the solution process, I asked them to solve it in their journal the way they would have just given the problem (again, most with the algorithm) and then tell if it was similar to what they did on their grids. Many struggled to see any similarities which surprised me, especially with the way some took away the tenths and hundredths on the grids.



This was so interesting to me especially when I saw so many correct answers in their journals but when asked to explain, it was tough! Subtraction is tough…for students and adults. Not the calculation so much, but the concept of what is happening. It is so conceptual and really hard to break away from methods we know that work for us to truly understand the meaning behind them! I know I still have to think harder about subtraction then I do addition, so I want to make it clearer for my students.

So much to think about and I am sure I have so much to learn about subtraction and connecting representations to their thinking, but this is a stepping stone along the way!