7 Ways Kids Can Get Tripped Up by 1 Math Problem

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

Kids can struggle with math for lots of reasons. And those challenges can show up in their work. Here are seven different ways kids might get tripped up by the same math problem:

15 – 9 = 6

1. Using “Number Sense”

Number sense is a group of skills kids use to work with numbers. It includes understanding concepts like more and less.

In the above math problem, the number “9” means one group of nine items. Some kids might not understand what it means to take nine items away from a group of 15 items. Or they might not grasp that 15 is more than nine.

How to help: Use blocks, buttons, or other things kids can move around to see the single items being added to groups and taken away.

2. Using the Sign

Kids may not understand or remember what each operation sign is telling them to do. They may even misread the sign—the minus sign in this case.

How to help: Ask kids to circle the sign in each problem. Then have them say the name of the symbol out loud along with the operation it indicates. For example, “Plus means add.”

3. Recognizing the Numerals

The numerals “6” and “9” have the same shape, but are oriented differently. Kids might have trouble remembering the value of each one. They might also get confused and think that “6” means nine and “9” means six.

How to help: Have kids trace each numeral with their fingers and say the name aloud. You can even do the tracing in a tray filled with shaving cream or sand.

4. Working With Double Digits

Place value can be tricky. When kids aren’t sure about the concept of a double-digit number—that it has a tens value and ones value—they might get stumped.

How to help: Work with the number “15.” Have kids draw a line between the 1 and the 5 and read “15” as “one ten and five ones.”

5. Reading the Problem

Textbooks and workbooks usually show problems vertically. But teachers often show them horizontally (15 – 9 = 6). Some kids have trouble changing the orientation of the problem in their mind in order to solve it.

How to help: Have kids write the problem horizontally. Or do this step for them, if need be.

6. Copying the Problem

Sometimes kids need to copy the problem from their textbook onto paper. But they might copy the sign or any of the numerals incorrectly.

How to help: Have kids hold the textbook right next to the paper and then copy it down. Leave the book there and compare each number and sign.

7. Sticking With a Strategy

This subtraction problem might seem straightforward. But there are actually lots of ways to approach it.

Your child might have been taught to use a number line, to split each number into its tens value and ones value, or to borrow and carry. But kids might not remember which one to use, or how to do it.

How to help: Ask the teacher which strategy is being used in the classroom, and have the teacher explain it if you’re not familiar. Then you can help jog your child’s memory at home.

Find out why some kids have trouble with math. And see examples of “new math” problems and methods your child might be learning in school.

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