What Is Column Subtraction? Explained For Primary School Parents & Teachers

Here we explain what exactly column subtraction is, tell you how it is used and learnt in primary schools and provide some examples of questions involving this method!

Column subtraction is just one part of a child’s journey through subtraction. It is also one part of the journey where teachers should not rush to get students to this point. Our younger learners would be far better off with being exposed to, and having ample time to practice, mental methods of subtraction that have been carefully thought out and sequenced. It is not until Year 3 that the ‘formal’ method of column subtraction needs to be introduced.

What is column subtraction?

Column subtraction is what the curriculum calls a ‘formal’ written method for solving questions and problems involving subtraction. Column subtraction method is first introduced in Year 3 but will continue to be used by students up to Year 6 and beyond. 

The column method of subtraction relies on students being able to correctly arrange a calculation, such as 653 – 321, into columns so that the operation of subtraction can take place.

An example of this can be found in appendix 1 of the mathematics curriculum:

column subtraction showing 874-523 = 351.

It is worth bearing in mind that before students reach this stage, there are many other mathematical skills that students need to be competent in.

What is the expanded column method?

Before going straight to the column method above, a good intermediate way to get pupils ready for it is to use the expanded column method.

‘Expanded’ refers to writing out each digit into its corresponding value. 

For example, writing 189 in its expanded form would be 100, 80 and 9. In the context of column subtraction it would look like this. 

 789 – 458:

700  80  9
– 400  50  8
=300  30  1 

 = 331

There is however, no requirement for teachers to teach the expanded method as it is not in the national curriculum. 

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When do children learn about column subtraction in school?

Children will first encounter column subtraction in Year 3. They will be expected to:

  • add and subtract numbers with up to 3 digits, using formal written methods of columnar addition and subtraction

In Year 4, this progresses to the following:

  • add and subtract numbers with up to 4 digits using the formal written methods of columnar addition and subtraction where appropriate

When in Year 5, pupils will be expected to:

  • add and subtract whole numbers with more than 4 digits, including using formal written methods (columnar addition and subtraction)

For Year 6, while there is no statutory statement for column method, the non-statutory notes and guidance stipulates the following:

  • Pupils practise addition, subtraction, multiplication and division for larger numbers, using the formal written methods of columnar addition and subtraction, short and long multiplication, and short and long division  

How do you arrange and subtract columns?

When you rearrange a written subtraction calculation into columns, it is important to remember some crucial elements that need to be correct. 

First and foremost, the order of each digit is crucial. Take 789 – 458. The first number is referred to as the minuend and the second number is referred to as the subtrahend. 

It is important that when writing the column method that the minuend is the top number and the subtrahend is the bottom number.

For example, 789 – 458 would give a very different answer to 458 – 789.

Another important part of the arrangement is to ensure the place values all align. This is especially true for when you need to subtract numbers that have a different number of digits. Getting this part of the process wrong will definitely result in the procedure delivering an incorrect answer. 

If the calculation was 2,345 – 567, it is imperative that these are arranged correctly, particularly that the 5 is placed in the hundreds column rather than the thousands column, as illustrated below.

2,345 and not as 2,345

– 567                  – 567

This is why a prerequisite of column subtraction is a strong understanding of place value. This is why the expanded method, as mentioned above, can be a useful strategy to include.

Regrouping

One particular aspect that students initially find difficult is the concept of regrouping. This occurs when a digit in the subtrahend is greater than the digit that has the same place value in the minuend. For example:

783  –

458

As the 8 is greater than the 3, a regrouping strategy will need to be used. Doing this with place value counters can be useful in showing what is happening mathematically.

Place value counters, 7 in 100s column, 8 in 10s column, 3 in 1s column

This shows 783 and demonstrates that 8 ones cannot be taken away as there are only 3.

Place counters showing 7 in 100s column, 7 in 10s column, 13 in 1s column

Now we have exchanged one of the 10s counters for 10 of the 1s counters. This means that I now have 13 ones and this makes it possible to subtract 8.

place value counters, 7 counters in 100s column, 7 in 10s column, 5 in 1s column

You can see that the number currently represented is now 775. I can now continue the calculation by subtracting 50 and subtracting 400.

place value counters, 7 in 100s column, 2 counters in 10s column, 5 counters in 1s column

With 50 having been subtracted.

Place value counters, 3 in 100s column, 2 in 10s column, 5 in 1s column

With the 400 having been subtracted.

This is represented in column subtraction in the following way.

column method for 783-458=325, showing 100s being carried over to 10s and 10s being carried over to 1s

Subtracting 2 Digit Numbers from 3 Digit Numbers

 As discussed earlier, a strong understanding of place value is crucial for when subtracting numbers with a different number of digits, for example two-digit numbers from three-digit numbers.  

We want to ensure that students use the following:

345 – and not as 345

  67                       67

Using expanded column subtraction helps students to avoid this error as the place value of each digit is made clearer. 345 – 67 written in expanded form would be 300  40  5 – 60 7 =

300 40  5 – 

        60 7

Getting students to perform some calculations using this method before transitioning to the non-standard method may mitigate this issue. You could also get pupils to represent the calculation with place value counters. Please note that this is different from using the manipulative to help them solve the actual calculation.

345 minus 67 shown using place counters.
345 minus 67 shown using place counters.

When students can comfortably write the calculation in the following way:

345 –

67   

Then the process of solving the problem becomes the same as solving the calculation with regrouping. Depending where students are, they may need manipulatives to help them solve it.

A slide from Third Space Learning's online maths intervention which uses place value counters to teach column subtraction and regrouping.
A slide from Third Space Learning’s online maths intervention which uses place value counters to teach Year 5 column subtraction and regrouping.

Column subtraction with decimals

When pupils increase their understanding of decimal place value, they will be expected to use their knowledge of this and of column subtraction to solve problems involving decimals. This is usually done in the context of measurements.

It is important that pupils understand that the principles of place value and how column subtraction works does not change, it is only the context (decimals) that changes.

Column subtraction with decimals, 34.56-23.47=11.09

How does column subtraction relate to real life?

Column subtraction relates largely to real life as day to day we are continuously using subtraction and addition for larger numbers when planning budgets, checking our bank balance, bills or pay slips. 

For pupils, you could use examples of getting pocket money and seeing how much is left when spending it on sweets or a trip to the cinema. You can also relate column subtraction to calculate the distance left to get to a destination.

How does column subtraction relate to other areas of mathematics?

Column subtraction is a fundamental skill for pupils and may be used in nearly every area of maths, particularly within calculations and problem solving with measurement. 

What other methods of subtraction are used in schools?

As mentioned in the introduction, column subtraction should not be the go-to strategy that students are taught immediately. There are many other mental strategies that students need to learn first which they do in the early stages of schooling. Common strategies include:

  • Partitioning the subtrahend: This is where the subtrahend is partitioned (broken apart) into its different place values. This is then used for the students to perform two separate subtractions. 

For example:

78 – 36 =

78 – 30 and  6. 

The 6 can be subtracted from the 8 to get 72. Then 30 can be subtracted from 72 to get 42.

  • Bridging to ten: This is linked to partitioning, but the number is not broken up into its expanded form but partitioned in such a way that it would take the minuend to the next multiple of 10.  For example, in 165 – 7 the 7 can be partitioned into 5 and 2. 5 can be subtracted from 165 to make it 160. Finally, 2 can be subtracted from 160 to make 158. Number lines are particularly useful to scaffold the initial learning of this strategy but students should not rely on them.
  • Same difference: This strategy is particularly useful when subtracting a number from a minuend that would require plenty of regrouping. E.g. 2,000 – 256. The same difference principle applies to subtraction in the following way:

    Imagine it was 10 – 8. The difference is 2. 2 is also the difference between 9 and 7 and 8 and 6 etc. In all instances, the minuend and subtrahend is being decreased by 1 and this results in the same difference. 

    With 2000 – 256 we can apply the same principle and decrease both numbers by 1 knowing the difference will remain the same. Now the calculation becomes 1999 – 255 =. Now students can subtract and rely on subtraction facts that they are much more familiar with. 9 – 5 = 4,  90-50 = 40 and 900 minus 700 is 200. The 1000 will remain the same so the final answer will be 1744. This can be written in the following way:

    2000 – 256 = 1999 – 255 = 1744

When students go on to learn the formal method of subtraction, they fall into the habit of using this method to solve every subtraction they come across. Teachers, however, should encourage the use of the formal written method as a fall back or checking strategy and prioritise the mental strategies in Key Stage 2.

Column subtraction worked examples

1. 2874 – 123 = 

A straightforward question where if you don’t ensure that the subtrahend and minuend are correctly positioned will post relative issues. This is the type of question where we should encourage students to attempt it mentally first.

column subtraction 874-123=751

2. 4,783 – 2,349

4,783 – 

2,349

Here students will see that they will need to exchange from 1 ten for 10 ones. This will give the following:

column subtraction showing carrying 1 ten over to the units column

Next, the procedure can carry on as normal working from the lowest place value to the highest.

column subtraction 4783-2349=2434

There are no additional difficulties once the exchange has taken place.

3. 2,354.43 – 1,789.52 = 

The start of this process is straightforward and should be familiar to readers who have read the blog.

column subtraction taking a unit over to the tenths column

Where an additional difficulty may occur is in the next column.

column subtraction taking one ten over to the ones column

Here the student needs to exchange in the tens column and carry over 1 ten to the units column knowing that because of the previous step, the units column has a value of 3 and not 4.

column subtraction

For the rest of the problem, the same pattern continues.

column subtraction carrying one hundreds to the tens column
column subtraction carrying over from thousands column to hundreds column
column subtraction 2354.43-1789.52=564.91

Column subtraction word problems and answers

1. Harry had £365 in his bank account. His mum let him spend £249 on a new bike. How much was left in his account?

This question is a typical example of a subtraction that demonstrates the structure of takeaway. A physical quantity is being taken away from a larger quantity and so arranging this correctly is important.

column subtraction 365-249=116

2. Bill’s book was 561 words long. Ted’s book was 395 words long. How many more words did Bill read than Ted?

This question is an example of the subtraction structure of difference. We are not taking one quantity away from another but rather looking at the difference between the two quantities.

column subtraction 561-395=366

Column subtraction example questions

1. 345 – 234 = 

(Answer = 111)

2. 6,473 – 4,287 =

(Answer = 2,186)

3. 795.32 – 452.12 = 

(Answer = 343.11)

4. Harry had £734 in his bank account. His mum let him spend £375 on a new bike. How much was left in his account?

(Answer: £359)

5. Bill’s book was 1,453 words long. Ted’s book was 954 words long. How many more words did Bill read than Ted?

(Answer = 499)

Wondering about how to explain other key maths vocabulary to your children? Check out our Primary Maths Dictionary, or try these:

You can find plenty of worksheets for primary school pupils on the Third Space Learning Maths Hub.

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Neil Almond
Neil Almond
Woodland AT Primary
Lead Teacher
Neil is a primary school lead teacher and TES contributor, as well as a writer for Third Space.
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