I love teaching math. And not just any math, but word problems especially.
There, I said it. I love teaching word problems.
I know not all teachers share my fondness for word problems. And many students dread them. But I’m going to share a simple problem-solving strategy that will have you and your students loving word problems too.
Okay, maybe you won’t all love them. But at least you won’t fear them anymore.
Abandon the Acronyms
You may be familiar with one of these popular problem-solving acronyms. STEP, PAWS, ROCKS, CUBES, RIDES, etc… You may even be using one of them.
These “strategies” go by a number of different names, but they all include circling, highlighting, underlining, and/or boxing key words and numbers. Each letter of the title stands for a different step that helps break down a complex process and keeps students moving toward a solution.
Unfortunately, these steps don’t really teach kids how to problem solve. These “helpful” tasks can actually hinder students’ efforts to solve problems and frustrate them in the process.
Key words can be confusing for kids. Often the same ones are used for multiple operations. For instance, addition and multiplication share many of the same keywords. And the word “total” can be used with any of the four operations.
Also, if students don’t recognize the key word, then this step isn’t helpful at all.
A strategy that asks kids to circle all the numbers becomes confusing when there are extra numbers included in a problem. And rather than focus on the math, students become preoccupied with checking off steps in the strategy.
Often kids are so programmed to circle, box and highlight they launch right into these steps before they even finish reading the problem. That often leads to confusion and lots of wrong answers.
Fast learners get frustrated with these processes. They view all the highlighting, circling and underlining as unnecessary. It feels like busywork and seems wholly unrelated to the math task at hand.
Instead of an acronym-based process what kids and teachers need is a simple strategy that works every time. And I’m going to share that process with you today.
A Problem Solving Strategy that Works
Problem Solving Step 1: Read the Entire Problem
This step might be obvious to us, but kids are impulsive and impatient. They want to jump right into doing the math.
Example: My teacher gave me three boxes of books. Each box has 5 books in it. How many books do I have in all?
Step one is to put down the pencil and just read.
You will need to model how to do this. I demonstrate this first step every time I solve a problem in front of the class. I put down my marker and read the entire problem out loud.
You may also want to have your students put their hands in the air or on their heads. Older kids can put a finger to their temples or their chins to show they are thinking.
Ask students to visualize what the problem looks like. Can they see a picture in their minds?
Problem Solving Step 2: Reread and Draw a Math Model
The next step is to reread the problem one sentence at a time. As students read, they draw a model that represents the words they are reading.
For the sample problem, students would draw three squares to represent the boxes. Then they would add five dots or lines to each square to represent the books.
This helps kids organize the information and see things in perspective. By drawing a picture, they can visualize how many of something they are dealing with. Pictures also help them make connections between the different parts of the problem.
Over time, kids will also make associations between different drawings and operations. They will learn that when they draw an array, they are multiplying. Or when they draw a set number of groups they are dividing.
Sometimes a model is off when students draw it step-by-step. But that’s okay. It teaches them trial and error, perseverance, and resilience. And, if kids can recognize that their model doesn’t match the problem, then they really understand the math.
Helpful hints for math models:
- Encourage students to make math models, not pictures—drawings don’t have to be pretty and they don’t have to be perfect. For instance if the problem says the classroom started the year with 100 pencils you don’t want kids drawing 100 pencils, or even making 100 tally marks. A box with the number 100 written on it is sufficient.
- Model ways to make simple models using dots or boxes to represent complex shapes.
- Over the course of the year introduce your class to many different types of models, including arrays, equal groups, bar/tape models, number lines, and area models.
Problem Solving Step 3: Write an Equation and Solve
This is everyone’s favorite step. The third step in the process is to use the model to write a number sentence. A well-drawn model should provide all the information the student needs to write the number sentence.
Example: Students can go back and count the three boxes they drew and the five dots inside each one and write the number sentence: 3 X 5=15
Once the number sentence is written, students solve for the unknown. And after they find the solution, they can use the model to check their answer.
In the sample problem students would do this by counting the total number of dots in each box they drew in the model.
Problem Solving Step 4: Write Your Answer in a Sentence
The last step is to write the answer in a complete sentence. Many teachers require their students to label the answer. But I go I step further. I want my students to write the answer in the sentence.
You will need to model how to go back to the word problem and use part of the question in their answer.
Example: I have fifteen books in all.
This step increases the odds that students will check to see if their answer makes sense and actually answer the question that was asked. It’s also great practice for writing and grammar skills.
How to Help Students Who Struggle with Word Problems
- Don’t panic, take your time
- Practice word problems every day and use these 4 steps every time you solve a problem
- Post the problem-solving strategy in your classroom and/or give students their own printed copies of each step
- Use word problems to introduce new concepts
- Identify common types of word problems
- Scaffold students with sentence starters
- Have students share ideas/strategies with one another
- Practice, practice, practice
Looking for more ways to get your students writing about math. Check out my Math Journals. They come with tons of great word problems that ask students to explain their mathematical thinking. They are available for grades 2, 3, and 4, in both printable and digital formats. There is also a printable version for grade 5.
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Have a Not So Wimpy Day,