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Solving Word Problems

Solving math word problems can be a difficult skill both to teach and to learn. While word problems may be challenging, they give students the opportunity to apply and practice the skills they have learned in real-world situations. Adults are regularly called upon to solve mathematical problems in both personal and professional lives. The following suggestions can be used to help students develop the skills needed to tackle and solve word problems in math.

Sound Steps for Solving Word Problems:

1. Take a break before you begin the word problems. The brain actually processes word problems differently than computational math. Giving the student a short mental break between computation and word problems allows for a reset.

2. Read the word problem ALL THE WAY THROUGH first. Do not worry about the

numbers. Then ask yourself, “What do I understand?”

3. Re-read it OUT LOUD again and “BEEP” out the numbers.  This allows the student’s brain to focus on what is being asked instead of trying to capture the process.

4. Are there keywords? Circle them if it helps in understanding. Cross through any unnecessary information.

5. Word problems need to be answered in words. Can you plug your answer in and it makes sense?

6. Alleviate the anxiety. You can reduce anxiety about word problems by helping your child learn to craft their own. Understanding how to construct word problems allows a student to apply their mathematical thinking skills and translate those skills into application.

7. Relax. This is a skill that takes time to develop.

More Observations for the Parent:

Do They Understand?

Ask your student if they understand what the problem is asking for. Underline the sentence that is asking for a solution. 

Which Operation to Use

Students often wonder which operation to use (addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division). Are quantities being put together, or will the result be a greater amount? Then addition or multiplication will most likely be used. Is an amount being separated from a whole, or will the result be less? Subtraction or division are your top choices.

Keywords are Not a Shortcut

Some teachers recommend finding keywords to determine the appropriate operation. While Math-U-See does refer to this technique, it should not be used as the primary means for solving a problem. Depending on keywords alone does not encourage students to think mathematically about a problem or use logic to reason toward a solution. Furthermore, it is not a foolproof method. Sometimes keywords do not appear in problems, or additional operations may be required to find the final answer. Keywords should only be used to support the student’s rationale for choosing a particular operation and not be the determining factor.

Check the Solution

First, the student should make sure the question posed has been answered. Sometimes the result of a calculation is only one step to finding the final solution, and additional work must be done. Second, make sure the answer is reasonable. It would not make sense, for example, to have a bedroom with an area of 2 square centimeters. 

Finally, if the solution is given in an answer key and the student’s response does not match, take the time to find out why. Discuss the problem and the student’s solution, and adjust any misunderstandings. Share with the student other ways to solve the problem that might be more efficient. 

Word problems can be challenging, but learning how to solve them is well worth the effort. As you utilize the suggestions listed above, your student will become more skillful and successful in applying mathematical reasoning to real-life situations.

Be sure to check the Index in the back of the Instruction Manual to find additional word problem tips, strategies, and cautions.

Related Articles and Blog Posts

Make Word Problems Fun [Video]
Teach Word Problems with a Graphic Organizer [Free Download]

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