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Problem Structures for Addition & Subtraction

Quick pop quiz. How many problem structures are there for addition and subtraction problems?

If you said somewhere around 15 structures, you’re in the right ballpark. Unfortunately, students are often exposed to only the simplest structures. As teachers, we need to have an understanding of all the structures and teach them to our students in a methodical way.

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“…teachers who are not aware of the variety of situations and corresponding structures may randomly offer problems to students without the proper sequencing to support students; full grasp of the meaning of the operations.” (Van de Walle et al)

The charts below were adapted from Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally (Van de Walle et al), a phenomenal book for developing your own understanding of math.

The addition/subtraction structures are grouped into three main types: Change, Part/Part/Whole, and Comparison. For each type, there are multiple structures, depending on what information is known and unknown.

Change Problems

One of the first things you might notice is that the structures are not designated as addition or subtraction. While we typically think of joining as addition and separating as subtraction, you’ll see from the chart that is not always the case. Result Unknown is the simplest and most familiar structure. You might think of these as classic addition and subtraction problems. As we move across the chart, the problems become increasingly complex, and we see that the Change Unknown and Start Unknown structures can be interpreted as either addition or subtraction.

An appropriate way to introduce the problems is to start with the simplest, Result Unknown, problems. Start with Join problems and allow students to practice solving just that type of problem. Help students focus on the meaning of each number in the problem, in terms of Change, Start, or Result. Drawing models is a good strategy for helping students analyze and visualize each problem. Next, introduce Separate problems, again giving them practice with just that type. Then it’s time to mix them up, so students have to determine the appropriate structure, based on the problem.

Now start to move across the chart, using the same process. Introduce the next structure (Join, Change Unknown), practice the structure, and then mix it in with the others they already know. Keep in mind that this process takes time. If you’re a second-grade teacher, make a schedule for introducing the structures throughout the school year. Use numbers appropriate to the students’ computation skills.


Part-Part-Whole problems are very similar to Change. The subtle difference is that often there is no action in these problems, which makes them a little more abstract for students. The Whole Unknown structure is a very simple addition problem. In the One Part Unknown structure, we know the total and one of the parts, but we are missing the other part. This is also commonly called a Missing Addend problem. We often solve this type of problem using subtraction, but a counting-up strategy works well also. A really interesting structure is Both Parts Unknown. It’s a word problem application of knowing all the combinations for a number!

As students are introduced to more of the structures, remember that it’s just as important that they generate problems as solve them. I love an activity I call You Write the Story. Give students an equation and have them write a story to go with it and draw a model for their story.

One other note about Change and Part-Part-Whole problems, while these examples all have two addends, you can also use more than two addends to provide more of a challenge. Think: There are 425 students in the cafeteria. One hundred twenty-seven students are 5th graders, 146 are 4th graders, and the rest are 3rd graders. How many 3rd graders are in the cafeteria?


Finally, we have Comparison problems, which involve comparing two quantities–a larger quantity and a smaller one. They can also be written using either more or fewer. Fewer is by far more difficult for students. We want to make sure we introduce comparison subtraction using manipulatives to help students understand the structure. See this post for more information.

There you have it! All the structures for addition and subtraction problems. You can download your own copy of the tables showing the structures using the button below.

I look forward to hearing how you will teach these structures in your classroom, so be sure to leave a comment!

Resources for problem structures

Morrow-Leong, K., Moore, S. D., & Gojak, L. (2021). Mathematize it!: Going beyond key words to make sense of word problems, grades K-2 or grades 3-5. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Carpenter, Thomas P., et al. (2015) Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction. Heinemann.

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    1. Do you have a post for Problem Structures of multiplication and division?I saw the book, but I was hoping you had something more like this post for multiplication and division.

      I follow all your posts! Thank you for helping me become a better teacher❤️

  1. Awesome blog and charts! I did notice that “amount” is misspelled in the last chart in the red boxes.

    1. Well, yes it is! Thanks so much for calling it to my attention. I’ll get it corrected straight away.

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