The Building Blocks of Math: Why and How to Teach Number Bonds for Addition


Inside: Explore the importance of teaching number bonds in kindergarten and first grade, along with practical strategies and engaging activities to help your students master using number bonds for addition and subtraction.

I placed the tub of snap cubes in front of my students on the learning rug. Their eyes lit up with delight.

“Who can show me different ways to make the number 5 using these cubes?” I thought this would be an easy warm-up, but I was in for a rude awakening.

One by one, students proudly held up a stick of five cubes, not comprehending what I meant by “different ways.” I was getting five green cubes, five red cubes, etc. Then, I got five green and five red cubes stuck together. (OH NO!)

No matter how I rephrased the directions, they kept giving me that same stuck of 5 identical cubes.

My kiddos clearly didn’t have the foundational number sense to deconstruct and recompose numbers flexibly. They couldn’t yet grasp that 5 could be 4 and 1, or 3 and 2.

At that moment, I realized that if my students couldn’t take apart and rebuild numbers, their whole understanding of addition, subtraction, and eventually more advanced math would suffer.

We needed number bonds.

The Building Blocks of Math: Why and How to Teach Number Bonds for Addition- a variety of snap unifex cubes in different colors

The Magic of Number Bonds

Number bonds are a cornerstone in early math education. Teaching number bonds for addition and subtraction is a crucial skill that sets the stage for future math success. They also help kids develop a strong sense of numbers. While we often focus on teaching number bonds in kindergarten, first-grade teachers are just as important in reinforcing these concepts. Let’s explore why number bonds matter and how we can make them fun and engaging for our little learners.

a student picking up number magnets on a desk

What Are Number Bonds?

Number bonds are simple diagrams that show how a whole number can be divided into parts. Think of them like puzzles: the number 10 can be divided into 7 and 3, 6 and 4, and so on. These diagrams help kids see how numbers connect and work together.

Example of a Number Bond Diagram:

  • Whole Number: 10
    • Parts: 7 and 3
    • Parts: 6 and 4
    • Parts: 5 and 5
a piece of chart paper stuck to a blue wall with a number bond for 10 (7 and 3) written on it

Number bonds (in kindergarten and beyond) are a powerful tool for teaching addition and developing a solid foundation in mathematical understanding.

Why Teach Number Bonds?

Number Bonds for Addition and Subtraction Mastery:

Number bonds are the building blocks for understanding how numbers combine and break apart. When kids learn that 8 and 2 make 10, they essentially grasp the concept of addition and subtraction.

For instance, if students know that 8 and 2 together make 10, they can easily see that if they have 10 and take away 2, they are left with 8.

a close up of a child's hands as they put two red unifex cubes together

This foundational understanding allows students to see the relationship between addition and subtraction as interconnected operations. By mastering number bonds in kindergarten, students build a solid base for more complex math operations, making it easier to transition to higher-level math skills. (And saving you from many headaches later on!)

Building Blocks for Higher Math:

Getting comfortable with number bonds now helps kids tackle more complex math problems later on.

When students understand how numbers can be decomposed and recomposed, they are better prepared to handle multi-step problems and advanced arithmetic. For example, if they know that 10 can be broken down into 7 and 3, they can easily solve a problem like 7 + 3 + 5.

Understanding that numbers can be broken down in different ways sets the stage for learning multiplication, division, fractions, and even algebra. These concepts rely heavily on the ability to see numbers in flexible ways, which number bonds inherently teach.

a child writing related facts on a chalk board

Enhances Number Sense:

Number bonds boost number sense, which is all about understanding the value of numbers and how they relate to each other. This skill helps kids recognize patterns, estimate, and solve problems more easily.

Students with a strong number sense can quickly identify relationships between numbers, such as knowing that 6 is 2 less than 8 or 4 more than 2. This understanding allows them to approach problems confidently and flexibly, using their intuition to find solutions.

Moreover, strong number sense helps students in real-life situations, like making change, estimating distances, or understanding quantities, making math a valuable tool in their everyday lives. Number bonds are not just for the classroom; they are skills children can use in daily interactions with the world.

students in a classroom with abacuses

How to Introduce Number Bonds in Kindergarten

Introducing number bonds in kindergarten is crucial for building a solid understanding of addition. Here are some ideas to get started:

Using Manipulatives: Start with something tangible like beads, blocks, or counters. Let kids physically move objects to see how numbers break down and come together. For example, 10 blocks can be divided into two groups to show different combinations.

two rekenreks on a table with other school supplies

Number Bond Diagrams and Games: Introduce number bond diagrams to visualize and practice the concept. Simple card games where students match parts to make a whole can reinforce learning. For instance, have cards with different combinations that add up to 10 and let students pair them up.

Integration with Daily Activities: Incorporate number bond lessons into everyday activities. For example, during snack time, ask how many pieces of fruit are left if they start with ten and eat 3. You can also ask them to divide their toys into different groups and count how many are in each group. This makes learning continuous and contextual.

Reinforcing Number Bonds in 1st Grade

Progressive Difficulty: As students advance, introduce more complex number bonds. Use larger numbers and different combinations to challenge them. For instance, move from bonds of 10 to bonds of 20 and include three-part bonds as students become more comfortable.

Regular Practice: Ensure regular practice through centers, worksheets, digital apps, and interactive group activities. Consistent reinforcement helps solidify their skills and keeps their understanding fresh.

Connecting to Real Life: Help students see the relevance of number bonds in daily life. Use practical examples like dividing a set of toys between friends or measuring ingredients for a recipe. Real-world applications make learning more meaningful.

students working with blocks on the rug in a classroom

Connect to Related Facts: Show the connection between number bonds and related facts. Related facts are addition and subtraction problems that use the same numbers. For example, if you know that 7 and 3 make 10, you also know that 10 minus 3 equals 7 and 10 minus 7 equals 3. This reinforces their understanding and helps them see the relationships between numbers.

For instance, use the Related Facts Flower Craft to demonstrate these connections visually. This craft gives students practice with related facts in a fun and engaging way. It can be used as part of a whole class activity, in small groups, or in a center. Visual directions are included, so you don’t need to micromanage, and they make a great bulletin board for spring, Valentine’s Day, or any time of year!

a related facts math craft in a flower shape

Making Number Bonds Stick

Teaching number bonds early and consistently is crucial for developing strong mathematical foundations. Adopting and adapting the strategies discussed allows you to create a classroom environment that fosters a deep understanding of number relationships. Try implementing one or more of these activities regularly and observe the positive shifts in your students’ mathematical fluency and number sense. By focusing on number bonds in kindergarten and consistently reinforcing them in first grade, you equip your students with the tools they need to excel in addition, subtraction, and beyond.

Don’t miss out on my free Related Facts Center! This no-prep center helps students practice related facts effectively. Download it here.

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Melissa Glenn

I’m a teacher, a certified Reading Specialist, and the author behind "Real Life in the Classroom". I love to create classroom resources and share ideas to help real teachers in real classrooms easily plan and implement instruction that they can feel great about.

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Hi, I'm Melissa!

I’m Melissa Glenn of Real Life in the Classroom. I live in New Jersey with my husband, Tom, our two children, and our dog, Klaus. I taught first grade for 12 years and I also have a certificate in Reading Specialization. I love spending time with my family, all things tech, [online] shopping, and new books!