Zero or 0 is what mathematicians use to represent nothing.

As well as this, it’s used as what’s called a placeholder in large numbers. That is, it’s not worth anything, but it can change the value of other numbers. For example, in the number 124, 2 represents 20. However, if we add a zero to the end to make 1,240, the 2 illustrates 200. So, adding a zero to the end of any number increases its value by a factor of ten.

If you’re struggling to see how this works, you might want to think about it in table form:


Hundreds Tens Units
1 2 4


Thousands Hundreds Tens Units
1 2 4 0

Who Invented the Number Zero?

Evidence of the number zero being used over 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Back then, though, it looked very different, like a double diagonal wedge between columns of numbers.

Despite this, it took a while for zero to catch on. It went in and out of fashion in Ancient Greece, and the Romans didn’t use it. It wasn’t until Arab merchants imported the number from India in the 11th Century that its use became widespread in Europe. By then, mathematicians in other parts of the world had already been using it for hundreds of years!

Addition with Zero

As you might have already guessed, addition with zero is easy! The Identity Law of Addition says that any number added to zero equals itself. For example:

  • 3 + 0 = 3
  • 21 + 0 = 21
  • 142 + 0 = 142
  • 1,657 + 0 = 1,657
  • 1,243,576 + 0 = 1,243,576

Have you spotted the pattern yet? You can add zero to any number; the answer is the same!

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Subtraction with Zero

As with addition, when you subtract 0 from a number, you get the same number. So, for example, 16 – 0 = 16.

This gets a little trickier when subtracting larger numbers using the column method. For example, consider the sum 1740 – 472 = ?. To solve this, you’ll have to borrow or exchange, where you take the number from the left.

Tips for Teaching Zero

Of course, it’s only natural your class or child will have more questions about the number zero. How can it be a number? Why do we need it? What even is it? These are just a few that are bound to come your way!

So, if you’d like to come prepared to your lesson, then here’s some handy advice for teaching zero:

  • You’re best off introducing zero after children understand the value of other numbers.
  • Start by comparing zero and nothing, then compare it to other numbers.
  • Though it might sound strange, using objects like coins or counters can help explain zero.
  • After you’ve spent some time on this, you can extend your teaching on zero to weights and measures. Again, this is a great way to consolidate understanding.

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