Adding From Left to Right -- A Better Way to Add

More than likely, when you learned how to add, you started on the right and moved to the left. If you were adding whole numbers, you added the ones, "carried" if necessary, and repeated for the tens, hundreds and so on. This works well on paper, and it is the most efficient paper and pencil method; however, adding in the other direction has several desirable advantages: the left to right method promotes a better understanding of place value, it can be done mentally with much greater ease, and it does not require that numbers be lined up in a column. Students can learn left to right addition, so they have another method to choose from when presented with addition problems.

Left to right addition involves adding the largest place values first. As you move from left to right, you keep a cumulative total, so it is simply a number of smaller addition problems. To give you an idea of how it works and what it sounds like, consider the example, 677 + 938.

Begin by adding the left most place values. In the example this is 600 plus 900 equals 1500. Add the values in the next place, one at a time, to the previous sum, and keep track of the new sum each time. In the example, 1500 + 70 is 1570, 1570 + 30 is 1600. For students who are more proficient at this algorithm, they don't necessarily think "plus 70" or "add 30." Their thought process, if said out loud might sound like, "600, 1500, 1570, 1600, . . ." Continue adding the values in each subsequent place until finished. The final steps in the example are 1600 + 7 is 1607, 1607 plus 8 is 1615. The sum is 1615.

As you can imagine, students need to be proficient at single digit addition and have an understanding of place value before attempting left to right addition. When they are first learning it, they might try repeating sums as they go along (e.g. 1500, 1570, 1570, 1570, 1600, . . .) to help them retain the newest sums. They might also cross out digits as they are adding. There is no rule about having to add in this way mentally. Students could write down the sums as they proceed.

Left to right addition promotes a better understanding of place value than right to left addition. In right to left addition, single digits are carried or regrouped with little emphasis placed on what the value of those carried digits are. In the example, 1246 + 586, students add 6 + 6 to get 12; they write down the 2 and carry the 1 when they should be carrying the ten. In the next step, they add 8 + 4 + 1 to get 13; they write down the 3 and carry the 1 when they should be adding 80 + 40 + 10, writing the 3 in the tens place (i.e. 30) and carrying the hundred. Essentially, right to left addition excludes vocabulary related to place value. Left to right addition, on the other hand, promotes an understanding of place value as each digit is given its correct value. In the example, the one in the thousands place is one thousand, the two in the hundreds place is two hundred, and so on.

Left to right addition is well-suited to mental addition since the sum is cumulative with no steps in between; in other words, there is nothing for the student to keep in mind except for the cumulative sum. In right to left addition, several numbers must be remembered as the student proceeds. To illustrate this, consider the simple example, 64 + 88. In left to right addition, the sum is simple to find: 60, 140, 144, 152. Only one number had to be remembered at any point. In right to left addition, 4 + 8 is 12, so there are already two numbers to remember: the two in the ones place and the regrouped ten. The next step is to add 60 + 80 + 10 to get 150. At this point, the two must be recalled and added to the 150 to get 152. Although this sounds simple, it becomes more complicated with more digits.

Right to left addition does not require numbers to be lined up in a column, but it is often taught that way because the method tends to ignore place value and relies on a student's ability to line up the place values to compensate. Many errors that students make in right to left addition occur because they don't have a strong knowledge of place value, and they forget or don't realize that like place values need to be lined up. They might, for instance, add a digit in the tens place to a digit in the hundreds place. Another scenario is a sloppy recording of numbers where a digit is mistakenly added to the wrong column. In left to right addition, the emphasis is on finding a certain place value in each number rather than relying on the place values being aligned. Students, of course, need to be able to recognize place value before they can be successful at this method. For instance, they should be able to recognize that the ones in the numbers: 514, 1499, and 321 are in the tens, thousands, and ones places respectively. If they can't, further teaching on place value is required before addition can be taught effectively.

Although left to right addition has several advantages, it isn't suggested that you scrap everything else. Learning a wide variety of addition methods allows you latitude in problem solving situations. By teaching students this method, you give them another option when they are tackling addition questions.

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Peter Waycik is an elementary teacher and the creator of thousands of free math worksheets that can be found at his website: