Word problems can be tricky for a lot of students, but they’re incredibly important to master. After all, in the real world, most math is in the form of word problems. “If one gallon of paint covers 400 square feet, and my wall measures 34 feet by 8 feet, how many gallons do I need?” “This sweater costs $135, but it’s on sale for 35% off. So how much is that?” Here are the best teacher-tested ideas for helping kids get a handle on these problems.
1. Solve word problems regularly
This might be the most important tip of all. Word problems should be part of everyday math practice, especially for older kids. Whenever possible, use word problems every time you teach a new math skill. Even better: give students a daily word problem to solve so they’ll get comfortable with the process.
Learn more: Teaching With Jennifer Findlay
2. Teach problem-solving routines
There are a LOT of strategies out there for teaching kids how to solve word problems (keep reading to see some terrific examples). The important thing to remember is that what works for one student may not work for another. So introduce a basic routine like Plan-Solve-Check that every kid can use every time. You can expand on the Plan and Solve steps in a variety of ways, but this basic 3-step process ensures kids slow down and take their time.
Learn more: Word Problems Made Easy
3. Visualize or model the problem
Encourage students to think of word problems as an actual story or scenario. Try acting the problem out if possible, and draw pictures, diagrams, or models. Learn more about this method and get free printable templates at the link.
Learn more: Math Geek Mama
4. Make sure they identify the actual question
Educator Robert Kaplinsky asked 32 eighth grade students to answer this nonsensical word problem. Only 25% of them realized they didn’t have the right information to answer the actual question; the other 75% gave a variety of numerical answers that involved adding, subtracting, or dividing the two numbers. That tells us kids really need to be trained to identify the actual question being asked before they proceed.
Learn more: Robert Kaplinsky
5. Remove the numbers
It seems counterintuitive … math without numbers? But this word problem strategy really forces kids to slow down and examine the problem itself, without focusing on numbers at first. If the numbers were removed from the sheep/shepherd problem above, students would have no choice but to slow down and read more carefully, rather than plowing ahead without thinking.
Learn more: Where the Magic Happens Teaching
6. Try the CUBES method
This is a tried-and-true method for teaching word problems, and it’s really effective for kids who are prone to working too fast and missing details. By taking the time to circle, box, and underline important information, students are more likely to find the correct answer to the question actually being asked.
Learn more: Teaching With a Mountain View
7. Show word problems the LOVE
Here’s another fun acronym for tackling word problems: LOVE. Using this method, kids Label numbers and other key info, then explain Our thinking by writing the equation as a sentence. They use Visuals or models to help plan and list any and all Equations they’ll use.
Learn more: Teaching With Jennifer Findlay
8. Consider teaching word problem key words
This is one of those methods that some teachers love and others hate. Those who like it feel it offers kids a simple tool for making sense of words and how they relate to math. Others feel it’s outdated, and prefer to teach word problems using context and situations instead (see below). You might just consider this one more trick to keep in your toolbox for students who need it.
Learn more: Book Units Teacher
9. Determine the operation for the situation
Instead of (or in addition to) key words, have kids really analyze the situation presented to determine the right operation(s) to use. Some key words, like “total,” can be pretty vague. It’s worth taking the time to dig deeper into what the problem is really asking. Get a free printable chart and learn how to use this method at the link.
Learn more: Solving Word Problems With Jennifer Findlay
10. Differentiate word problems to build skills
Sometimes students get so distracted by numbers that look big or scary that they give up right off the bat. For those cases, try working your way up to the skill at hand. For instance, instead of jumping right to subtracting 4 digit numbers, make the numbers smaller to start. Each successive problem can be a little more difficult, but kids will see they can use the same method regardless of the numbers themselves.
Learn more: Differentiating Math
11. Ensure they can justify their answers
One of the quickest ways to find mistakes is to look closely at your answer and ensure it makes sense. If students can explain how they came to their conclusion, they’re much more likely to get the answer right. That’s why teachers have been asking students to “show their work” for decades now.
Learn more: Madly Learning
12. Write the answer in a sentence
When you think about it, this one makes so much sense. Word problems are presented in complete sentences, so the answers should be too. This helps students make certain they’re actually answering the question being asked… part of justifying their answer.
Learn more: Multi-Step Word Problems
13. Add rigor to your word problems
A smart way to help kids conquer word problems is to, well… give them better problems to conquer. A rich math word problem is accessible and feels real to students, like something that matters. It should allow for different ways to solve it and be open for discussion. A series of problems should be varied, using different operations and situations when possible, and even include multiple steps. Visit both of the links below for excellent tips on adding rigor to your math word problems.
14. Use a problem-solving rounds activity.
Put all those word problem strategies and skills together with this whole-class activity. Start by reading the problem as a group and sharing important information. Then, have students work with a partner to plan how they’ll solve it. In round three, kids use those plans to solve the problem individually. Finally, they share their answer and methods with their partner and the class. Be sure to recognize and respect all problem-solving strategies that lead to the correct answer.
Learn more: Teacher Trap
Like these word problem tips and tricks? Learn more about Why It’s Important to Honor All Math Strategies.