Ideas and Strategies for Teaching Word Problems

Math word problems tend to be one of the most challenging tasks for elementary students. If you find that students in your classroom are struggling with word problems, read below to grab lots of strategies, tips, and ideas for teaching word problems.


This blog post will...
  • describe what single-step and multi-step word problems are
  • explain why word problems are important
  • offer 5 strategies and 10 tips for teaching word problems
  • suggest a 5 step procedure for solving word problems
  • discuss common misconceptions students have about word problems


WHAT IS A WORD PROBLEM?
A word problem is a math situation that calls for an equation to be solved.  Students must apply their critical thinking skills to determine how to solve the problem.  Word problems give students the opportunity to practice turning situations into numbers.  This is critical as students progress in their education, as well as in their day-to-day life.

WHAT IS A MULTI-STEP WORD PROBLEM?
A multi-step word problem is a math situation that involves more than one equation having to be answered in order to solve the ultimate question.  This requires students to apply their problem solving skills to determine which operation or operations to use to tackle the problem and find the necessary information.  It offers students the opportunity to practice the skill of applying different math concepts with a given problem.

WHY ARE WORD PROBLEMS IMPORTANT IN MATH?
Word problems are essential in math because they give students the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a real life situation.  In addition, it facilitates students in developing their higher order thinking and critical thinking skills, creativity, positive mindset toward persevering while problem solving, and confidence in their math abilities.  Word problems are an effective tool for teachers to determine whether or not students understand and can apply the concepts and skills they learned to a real life situation.


5 MATH WORD PROBLEM STRATEGIES
  1. Visualization: Understand the math situation and what the question is asking by picturing what you read in your head while you are reading.
  2. Draw pictures: Make meaning of what the word problem is asking by drawing a picture of the math situation.
  3. Make Models: Use math tools like base-ten blocks to model what is happening in the math situation.
  4. Highlight Important Information: Underline or highlight important numbers, phrases, and questions.
  5. Word Study: Look for key words and phrases like “less” or “in all.”

10 TIPS FOR TEACHING STUDENTS HOW TO SOLVE WORD PROBLEMS
  • Model a positive attitude toward word problems and math.
  • Embody a growth mindset.
  • Model! Model! Model! Provide plenty of direct instruction.
  • Give lots of opportunities to practice.
  • Explicitly teach strategies and post anchor charts so students can access them and remember prior learning.
  • Celebrate the strategies and process rather than the correct answer.
  • Encourage students to continue persevering when they get stuck.
  • Invite students to act as peer tutors.
  • Provide opportunities for students to write their own word problems.
  • Engage in whole group discussions when solving word problems as a class.


WHAT ARE THE STEPS IN SOLVING WORD PROBLEMS?

STEP ONE: Read the problem.

STEP TWO: Read the problem a second time and make meaning of the problem by visualizing, drawing pictures, and highlighting important information (numbers, phrases, and questions).

STEP THREE: Plan how you will solve the problem by organizing information in a graphic organizer and writing down equations and formulas that you will need to solve.

STEP FOUR: Implement the plan and determine answer.

STEP FIVE: Reflect on your answer and determine if it is reasonable.  If not, check your work and start back at step one if needed.  If the answer is reasonable, check your answer and be prepared to explain how you solved and why you chose the strategies you did.

WHAT ARE THE COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS IN LEARNING TO SOLVE WORD PROBLEMS?
Elementary students often pull the numbers from a word problem and add them without considering what the question is asking them.  Early in their experience with word problems, this strategy may work most of the time; however, its’ effectiveness will cease as the math gets more complex.  It is important to instruct students to develop and apply problem-solving strategies.

Although helpful in determining the meaning, elementary students rely solely on key phrases to determine what is being asked in the problem.  Again, this may be an effective strategy early on in their math career, but it should not be the only strategy students use to determine what their plan of attack is.

Some elementary students give up before starting a word problem because they think all word problems are too hard.  It is essential to instill a positive mindset towards math in students. The best way to do that is through modeling.

Some elementary students think they can’t solve word problems because they do not know how to read yet.  The purpose of word problems is not to assess whether a child can read or not.  Instead, the purpose is to assess their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  As a result, it is appropriate to read word problems to elementary students.



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