How to Tackle Math Word Problems & Make Sense of Operations

Do your students struggle to make sense of math word problems? They’re not alone! Using meaningful word problem strategies can help kids make sense of operations & have confidence solving word problems.

As students learn the four math operations, it’s imperative that they learn to apply the operations to show higher level thinking.  Students should be able to determine which one to use and apply it to real-life situations, especially considering that our end goal is to create productive thinkers who can change the world.

One way we do this is by providing students with word problems that highlight the math operation and include problems that may happen in the real world.  Let’s explore some common reasons why students struggle with math word problems and learn two word problem strategies to help them overcome these challenges.

*This is a guest post from Jessica at Math with Purpose.

Common Reasons Students Struggle with Word Problems:

1. They’re Developing Reading Comprehension Skills

It’s no surprise that word problems can be a challenge for many students.  After all, many of these students are developing their own reading skills and then being asked to read and interpret informational text in a word problem.

Many word problems include multiple steps which require students to infer what to do first.  In fact, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that poor inferring skills lead to poor comprehension.

It is a skill that students must be explicitly taught and is usually one of the later skills due to its complexity. That means our students are expected to do a higher level of reading comprehension every time they read that short word problem in math class!

2. They’re Relying Only On Keywords (Rather than the Meaning of Operations)

Students can encounter difficulty when translating words into mathematical symbols or equations. They may struggle to identify which mathematical operations are needed to solve the problem and how to represent the problem in a mathematical format.  Many teachers teach students to circle key words and memorize them to determine which operation to use.

Students may learn that addition means to “add to” or “make a total” while subtraction is an action of “taking away”.  Students look for keywords that they can circle to determine whether adding or subtracting.   But what happens when the action is there, but students actually need to solve using a different math operation? Here’s an example:

Gabbi had some stickers.  She earned 12 more stickers for completing her homework.  Now she has 56 stickers.  How many stickers did she have at first?

In this problem, it’s clearly an “add to” situation.  Gabbi is adding to her collection.  However, to solve the problem, a student would need to subtract from the total to find the missing part.

While keywords can help with some problems, they don’t actually work for the variety of word problems students will encounter.

In fact, according to the University of Arizona, students will solve 15 different addition and subtraction problem types by the end of Grade 2 and 9 different multiplication and division problem types by the end of Grade 4.

Read more about the problems with relying on key words in word problems here.

Word Problem Strategies to Help Students Comprehend Operations Before Solving

In order to help students comprehend and solve complicated word problems, math educators have to think like a reading teacher and acknowledge there is a whole set of skills required for students to do the mathematics.

Instead of using basic strategies such as circling key words and plugging in numbers that may work some of the time, teachers can push for greater depth and understanding using two easy word problem strategies.

1. Make connections to prior knowledge and experiences:

One of the first reading strategies students learn is to make a movie of the text in their head and make real-world connections to the story.  The most meaningful connections are text to self connections where students relate the text to their own lives.

Students can do the same thing with a word problem!  They can read the story and make a picture of what’s happening– maybe even act it out with real life objects.

Teachers can also change the nouns in the word problem to be more relatable for each class including student names in the problems and objects that they enjoy doing each day.  This one simple change will help students engage with the text and want to find out more.

2. Visualize the problem by drawing a picture:

Once students are connected to the story of the word problem, it’s time to connect it to mathematics.

Instead of relying on keywords, students can draw visuals of the part-whole, comparison or equal groups models to show what operation will be needed to solve the problem.

Through drawing bar models, students will identify the variable and lay the strong foundation for algebra even beginning in Grade 2.

These visuals aren’t complicated and can be taught easily while students are comprehending the word problem.  You can find out more about these visual models for word problems in this blog post and even snag free posters for each representation for your classroom.

Solving math word problems is a valuable skill that empowers students to apply mathematical knowledge in real-life situations, but it also requires students to use a variety of skills to accomplish.  By thinking like a reading teacher, math educators can employ the skills they use during reading to truly help students master word problems by making connections and visualizing the problem.

If you are looking for more support to help students walk through the variety of word problems they will encounter, consider The Problem Solving Handbook.

It includes 3 video lessons for each problem type, plus practice and challenge problems for students to truly master word problems.

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