Teaching calculation: goodbye to endless lists of sums

Recently, I’ve been putting together a new school calculation policy. This has involved mapping out how the teaching of calculation should progress throughout the school so new methods build on the previous and by the time children leave in year 6, they are able to draw upon the most efficient method to solve a given problem. It has also got me thinking about the kinds of activities we can plan for children to allow them to practise using a method that go beyond just dishing out a list of sums – gah. I say “gah” because I find this approach pretty boring and also limiting in terms of differentiation; I would argue that your more able mathematicians need more than just calculations involving bigger and bigger numbers.

One very simple idea is to use a grid set up. This can be adapted in many ways, but let’s look at it in the context of practising the addition of numbers to three decimal places. Instead of asking children to solve a list of calculations, arrange the same numbers in a grid.

Forget lists of sums - use a grid approach

Forget lists of sums – use a grid approach

You can then begin to pose questions that add layers to the activity:

  • Can you find four pairs of numbers that total 2?
  • Can you find another four that total 4?
  • What are the largest and smallest totals you can find by adding 2 numbers?
  • What is the nearest total to 3 that you can make using 2 numbers?

By doing this, not only are children practising their addition methods, but those who need to be stretched a little further are also applying other skills to their work such as looking for patterns and relationships and working logically. It also adds the element of competition, which in my experience is rarely a bad thing.

It’s easy enough to change the numbers in the grid and the challenge questions to suit whatever operation you’re focussing on and the levels within your class so hopefully endless lists of numbers sentences can become a thing of the past. Have you used a similar approach when planning calculation activities? How might this work for you and your class?


  • What a lovely idea. I have been trying different approaches to avoid lists this year. Especially as we are moving away from giving pre-made lists in a bid to make the children more responsible for devising their own problems.

    I have just created a set of number grids based on your which will prove useful for tomorrows recap before our SATs practice papers next week! I will let you know how we do.


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  • I am a lover of children generating their own numbers for calculations. I often use dice which is very easy to differentiate. The children can choose to roll to make 2, 3, 4 digit numbers including decimals.
    I have also used twister and written different numbers onto the sheet using a whiteboard pen. The children then throw bean bags to generate their numbers.

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