My Favorite Strategy for 3-Digit Subtraction

Does anyone else despise teaching 2 and 3-digit subtraction? I totally LOVE addition, but subtraction… no thanks. It can be so difficult for our students!

Now, while I still don’t love teaching it, I wanted to share with you my favorite simple strategy to use. It just might come in handy if you’re gearing up for your subtraction unit!

Okay, so what’s the simple strategy…

3-Digit Subtraction Strategy: Use a Place Value Mat

Most of us know that it’s essential to use manipulatives like base ten blocks when we’re starting subtraction with regrouping. They’re a great visual!

However, one thing that really helped my students when we were working on 2 & 3-digit subtraction was using a place value mat that had extra space for regrouping.

Here’s what I mean. Take a look at this place value mat below. *Don’t worry, you can download these digital + printable place value mats for free at the end of this post!

This image shows blank place value mats for 2-digit and 3-digit.

As you can see, I have made a space for 20 ones in the ones place. I did this for a couple reasons. One, it helps students organize the ones instead of just tossing them in the ones column. And two, whenever we need to regroup, students have space to put ten more ones.

This image shows a 3-digit subtraction place value mat with a spot in the ones for regrouping.

I know it seems like such a little detail, but I promise you it really helps students SEE what’s going on when you’re practicing subtraction with base ten blocks!

Students Still Struggling? Use Linking Cubes!

Many students quickly grasp this concept and visual representation; however, if base ten blocks aren’t working, I have another trick for you. Use unifix cubes or linking cubes!

Before you do any subtraction problems, have your students make a bunch of towers of ten cubes. This is great if you’re working with a small group because I never had enough unifix cubes for my whole class!

Then, when you’re ready to start working on subtraction, students can model numbers with their cubes.

Image with linking cubes says: Use linking cubes to easily make groups of ten and break them apart when regrouping.

When it’s time to regroup, students can simply break apart a tower of ten and put them in the ones place. With these cubes, students don’t have to trade for different pieces like they do with base ten blocks.

Download Your Place Value Mats

You can download these place value mats to use with your students for free! I’ve included both digital & printable place value mats so you can use them no matter where you’re teaching!

Want more help with 2-3 digit addition & subtraction? Check out this post on why I stopped teaching the standard algorithm!

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