How To Help Students Solve Word Problems

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from teachers is “How do I get my students to put forth effort when presented with word problems?” More often than not, students pull out numbers from word problems and join them with whatever operation they have recently been taught and try to pass that answer off as work. This short-cut way of solving comes from a place of fear. They don’t know what they don’t know. Your students need to be taught how to see and approach word problems. It’s our job to prepare them with a toolkit of strategies and ways of thinking, so they can see themselves as capable individuals when solving word problems.

I teach my students how to decode word problems. I provide them strategies to use, model my thinking and create a blueprint for them. Using such strategies as CUBES or other acronyms is TOTALLY OKAY, but I suggest implementing other problem solving strategies as well.

It takes 8 days but it’s well worth it. Here is the schedule I follow for walking my students through a program that teaches them how to problem solve to answer math questions.

Day 1 – Introduction

The first day is about the introduction to the program. Start by unpacking what a word problem is with your students. There are no wrong answers- you’re trying to get an idea of how your students see math questions that are not procedural based. You’ll probably find that your students have negative feelings towards word problems.

Encourage them by explaining that we will gain insight and strategies that will make us better problem solvers and therefore more comfortable with word problems. We also cover the power of mental visualization. We practice painting mental pictures of the events in the story. This helps students realize that word problems require comprehension and not just math skills.

Days 2-4 – Teaching reading strategies for solving word problems

These lessons unpack reading strategies that students can use to comprehend what is happening in the story. They need to see beyond the numbers in the word problem to see the story that is unfolding. Here are the reading strategies we cover:

  • Asking questions
  • Determining importance
  • Making connections
  • Inferring
  • Summarizing
  • Mental monitoring/ visualizing

We also introduce a PNC chart. This chart breaks down the information that is provided, needed, and circumstantial.  


Days 5-6 – Teaching math strategies for solving word problems

Days 5-6 swings away from the reading comprehension of word problems back to the problem solving. This is more than “circle the keywords” or “box the numbers out.” These are a set of strategies that support numerical reasoning and accuracy. These strategies help students establish, model, and organize the numerical information in the word problem. Here are the math strategies we cover:

  • Model/picture it
  • Using patterns
  • Work backwards
  • Make a table/list
  • Logic reasoning
  • Guess and check

Days 7-8 – Practice

This is where I start to move away from instruction and into practice. The practice comes in two forms. First, I want my students to decode questions in groups or pairs. I’m looking to hear what we have learned over the last six days in the form of math discussion. I’m also looking to see who is still struggling and may need additional support. This is also a great time to use multi-step word problems.

On the last day I have my students work on eight questions independently. This is my formative assessment of what they have learned. I’m not trying to assess new math skills, so I select questions students can use previously taught skills to solve. Giving your students a toolkit to revisit time and time again will better serve their ability to problem solve. Not only are you providing them with a set of strategies to help them in times of need, you’re also providing them with the confidence they often lack to decode and effectively solve word problems. Teach your students not to be calculators, but instead problem solvers.

Grab our 8 Days To Word Problem Mastery Program for grades 4-5 with ready to go instructional lessons, lesson plans, and student printables. All the work is done for you!


Find It Fast

you might also like...