It’s one thing to solve a math equation when all of the numbers are given to you but with word problems, when you start adding reading to the mix, that’s when it gets especially tricky.
The simple addition of those words ramps up the difficulty (and sometimes the math anxiety) by about 100!
How can you help your students become confident word problem solvers? By teaching your students to solve word problems in a step by step, organized way, you will give them the tools they need to solve word problems in a much more effective way.
Here are the seven strategies I use to help students solve word problems.
1. Read the Entire Word Problem
Before students look for keywords and try to figure out what to do, they need to slow down a bit and read the whole word problem once (and even better, twice). This helps kids get the bigger picture to be able to understand it a little better too.
2. Think About the Word Problem
Students need to ask themselves three questions every time they are faced with a word problem. These questions will help them to set up a plan for solving the problem.
Here are the questions:
A. What exactly is the question?
What is the problem asking? Often times, curriculum writers include extra information in the problem for seemingly no good reason, except maybe to train kids to ignore that extraneous information (grrrr!). Students need to be able to stay focused, ignore those extra details, and find out what the real question is in a particular problem.
B. What do I need in order to find the answer?
Students need to narrow it down, even more, to figure out what is needed to solve the problem, whether it’s adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, or some combination of those. They’ll need a general idea of which information will be used (or not used) and what they’ll be doing.
This is where key words become very helpful. When students learn to recognize that certain words mean to add (like in all, altogether, combined), while others mean to subtract, multiply, or to divide, it helps them decide how to proceed a little better
Here’s a Key Words Chart I like to use for teaching word problems. The handout could be copied at a smaller size and glued into interactive math notebooks. It could be placed in math folders or in binders under the math section if your students use binders.
One year I made huge math signs (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divide symbols) and wrote the keywords around the symbols. These served as a permanent reminder of keywords for word problems in the classroom.
C. What information do I already have?
This is where students will focus in on the numbers which will be used to solve the problem.
3. Write on the Word Problem
This step reinforces the thinking which took place in step number two. Students use a pencil or colored pencils to notate information on worksheets (not books of course, unless they’re consumable). There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s what I like to do:
- Circle any numbers you’ll use.
- Lightly cross out any information you don’t need.
- Underline the phrase or sentence which tells exactly what you’ll need to find.
4. Draw a Simple Picture and Label It
Drawing pictures using simple shapes like squares, circles, and rectangles help students visualize problems. Adding numbers or names as labels help too.
For example, if the word problem says that there were five boxes and each box had 4 apples in it, kids can draw five squares with the number four in each square. Instantly, kids can see the answer so much more easily!
5. Estimate the Answer Before Solving
Having a general idea of a ballpark answer for the problem lets students know if their actual answer is reasonable or not. This quick, rough estimate is a good math habit to get into. It helps students really think about their answer’s accuracy when the problem is finally solved.
6. Check Your Work When Done
This strategy goes along with the fifth strategy. One of the phrases I constantly use during math time is, Is your answer reasonable? I want students to do more than to be number crunchers but to really think about what those numbers mean.
Also, when students get into the habit of checking work, they are more apt to catch careless mistakes, which are often the root of incorrect answers.
7. Practice Word Problems Often
Just like it takes practice to learn to play the clarinet, to dribble a ball in soccer, and to draw realistically, it takes practice to become a master word problem solver.
When students practice word problems, often several things happen. Word problems become less scary (no, really).
They start to notice similarities in types of problems and are able to more quickly understand how to solve them. They will gain confidence even when dealing with new types of word problems, knowing that they have successfully solved many word problems in the past.
If you’re looking for some word problem task cards, I have quite a few of them for 3rd – 5th graders.
This 3rd Grade Math Task Cards Bundle has word problems in almost every one of its 30 task card sets.
There are also specific sets that are dedicated to word problems and two-step word problems too. I love these because there’s a task card set for every standard.
CLICK HERE to take a look at 3rd grade:
This 4th Grade Math Task Cards Bundle also has lots of word problems in almost every single of its 30 task card sets. These cards are perfect for centers, whole class, and for one on one.
CLICK HERE to see 4th grade:
This 5th Grade Math Task Cards Bundle is also loaded with word problems to give your students focused practice.
CLICK HERE to take a look at 5th grade:
Want to try a FREE set of math task cards to see what you think?
Thanks so much for stopping by!