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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. This is excellent preparation for adulthood, where people are regularly called upon to solve problems in both their personal and professional lives. The following suggestions can be used to help students develop the skills needed to tackle and to solve word problems in math.

Relax and Read
Take a short break from the computational problems before starting the word problems so your student has fresh eyes. 

Some students find it helpful to read the problem aloud, draw a storyboard, or act out the problem as an aid to understanding; others may need to have the problem read to them. There should be no attempt at this point to think about calculations or computations required for solving.

Determine and Organize Information
Encourage your student to list everything that could be helpful, whether it’s something in the problem (e.g., “The car is 5 meters long.”) or a mathematical fact that they already know (e.g., 100 cm = 1 m). 

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

Read the problem out loud again and omit the numbers so the student can focus on what they have to do. Circle any key words that give clues on what to do with the numbers (e.g., “all together” = adding; “difference” = subtracting). Sometimes, after completing this step, the student may discover that they have gathered extraneous information which will not help them find the answer and can therefore be removed from their list. Put a line through any numbers or information that is unnecessary for solving the problem.

Choose a Strategy 
Students often wonder at this point 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 definite possibilities.

Some teachers recommend finding key words to determine the appropriate operation. While Math-U-See does refer to this technique, it should never be used as the primary means for solving a problem. Depending on key words 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 key words do not appear in problems, or additional operations may be required to find the final answer. Key words should only be used to support the student’s rationale for choosing a particular operation and not be the determining factor.

Work Towards the Solution
Many times there are several different ways to solve a problem that are all equally valid. A student could use guess-and-check, perhaps entering different values in a chart and computing various combinations until the desired one is found. Another student might use a more systematic approach, performing a series of calculations to arrive at the solution. Other students may choose an algebraic approach to set up and solve equations. Your student can use the manipulatives to work out the problem if this is helpful. 

Whatever method is used, it is important that the student take ownership of the solution process, utilizing the tools and strategies with which they feel the most comfortable.

Check the Solution
There is one more important step to solving any mathematical problem: checking the solution. First, the student should make sure that 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.

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