Threading instruction improves weak children's arithmetic

April 11, 2003

Dutch research has revealed that pupils at special schools for primary education can best learn arithmetic using one specific strategy. When adding and subtracting with numbers less than 100, these pupils make least mistakes when using the so-called threading strategy (for example, 65 - 23 = 65 - 20-3).

Bauke Milo investigated how children with learning difficulties can best learn to add and subtract numbers less than 100. Arithmetic lessons using modern methods challenge pupils to come up with their own solutions. However, children with learning difficulties require a different approach. The skills expected in modern arithmetic education are out of the reach of many children at special schools for primary education.

Milo followed a total of 70 pupils in special primary education who could manage to add and subtract numbers up to 20 but had not yet mastered the same for numbers up to 100. Over a period of six months, these pupils were coached in groups of 3 to 5 pupils. During this six-month period the researcher recorded the pupils on video. He also conducted several arithmetic tests.

The different groups were taught different methods for adding and subtracting numbers up to 100. There are two basic strategies for performing addition and subtraction: solving in threads or solving by splitting up. The threading strategy starts with the first whole number and then takes off tens and units, for example, 65 - 23 = 65 - 20 = 45, 45 - 3 = 42. The splitting strategy makes separate calculations for tens and units and in the final phase combines the outcomes: 65 - 23 = 60 - 20 = 40, 5 -3 =2, 40 + 2 = 42.

The researcher found that children with behavioural or learning difficulties who received special education, rarely adapt their strategies to make these easier for themselves. However, the children that did do this and the children who used the threading strategy made fewer mistakes in their sums than pupils who only used the splitting strategy.

These results led Milo to call for arithmetic instruction which only makes use of the threading strategy. Only when the use of this strategy does not give any problems, the teacher can move on to the teaching of other methods.
For further information please contact Dr Bauke Milo (Leiden University, now employed by the Education Inspectorate), tel. 31-513-645-627, e-mail: The doctoral thesis was defended on 2 April 2003. Dr Milo's supervisors were Prof. M. Boekaerts and Prof. A.J.J.M. Ruijssenaars.

The research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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