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Children's use of addition to solve two-digit subtraction problems


Correspondence should be addressed to Greet Peters, Centre for Instructional Psychology and Technology, Dekenstraat 2, Box 3773, Leuven 3000, Belgium (e-mail:


Subtraction problems of the type M − S = ? can be solved with various mental calculation strategies. We investigated fourth- to sixth-graders' use of the subtraction by addition strategy, first by fitting regression models to the reaction times of 32 two-digit subtractions. These models represented three different strategy use patterns: the use of direct subtraction, subtraction by addition, and switching between the two strategies based on the magnitude of the subtrahend. Additionally, we compared performance on problems presented in two presentation formats, i.e., a subtraction format (81 − 37 = .) and an addition format (37 + . = 81). Both methods converged to the conclusion that children of all three grades switched between direct subtraction and subtraction by addition based on the combination of two features of the subtrahend: If the subtrahend was smaller than the difference, direct subtraction was the dominant strategy; if the subtrahend was larger than the difference, subtraction by addition was mainly used. However, this performance pattern was only observed when the numerical distance between subtrahend and difference was large. These findings indicate that theoretical models of children's strategy choices in subtraction should include the nature of the subtrahend as an important factor in strategy selection.