Monday, January 4, 2016

Math Tip Monday: Ideas for Teaching Word Problems

It's time for another Math Tip Monday! Thanks for joining me and K's Classroom Kreations on our monthly linky party. We hope you find many useful tips, strategies, and resources to enhance your math instruction.

This month, we are focusing ideas for teaching word problems. 

Teaching for understanding 

In my classroom, I've always referred to word problems as story problems. I think it helps students to realize that there is a story they must read and comprehend prior to solving the problem. I believe in using a comprehension based approach to teaching story problems. I've found key word strategies to be problematic, so I try to avoid emphasizing key words. 

I use my daily Math Talks to teach story-problems. I include a variety of problems throughout the year, making sure students have multiple opportunities to practice solving all sorts of problems. Students learn to analyze and solve the problems using these steps.

Math Posters: Be a Good Mathematician! - available in my TPT store.
We read the problem. We read it again and close our eyes to visualize each part. We act it out or we connect it to a real life situation. A student retells the story in their own words. We draw a picture or write an equation to represent the problem. We discuss the appropriate operation (addition or subtraction) and brainstorm possible strategies for solving the problem. Students then solve the problem independently in their math journals. After a couple of minutes, we share our strategies and solutions. Depending on time, we either share with a partner or I choose a couple of students to share their strategies with the class. I spend a varied amount of time on each of the steps, depending on which one I'm emphasizing that day.

I've found that spending ten minutes to analyze and discuss just one story problem during a math talk has far more long-term impact on learning than when I would demonstrate how to solve a problem, followed by students solving ten problems on their own. Making this a part of our daily and weekly routine helps students gain a deeper understanding of story problems. By this time of year, my students rarely just add or subtract numbers without reading and attempting to understand the problem. 

Types of problems

When we analyze problems, one of the things we discuss is the type of problem. Is it a collection problem? A change problem? A compare problem?

Here are some examples of each:

Story problems are tricky, so helping students to notice differences between different problem types can really help them to successfully solve problems.

Jigsaw activities for differentiation

Differentiation can be hard to manage when you are teaching story problems. One way I am able to do so discreetly is by using Jigsaw activities.  I start by grouping students in homogeneous pairs. I write problems that are appropriate for the abilities of each pair. I use the partners' names in each problem, starting with my lowest, struggling learners and working up to my challenge-needed high flyers. Here's an example:

 I make two copies of the page (so that each student has his/her own copy of the problem to glue into their math journals) and cut the problems into strips. The partners take the strips, glue them down, and then work together to solve the problem. They are required to show their strategy or make a proof-drawing. Because the problems are differentiated, the students all get to experience success at their own level. If you have some early finishers, have some generic problems prepared for them to solve while others are finishing up.

For the final stage of the activity, partners must pair up with another set of partners to share their problems, strategies, and solutions.  Sometimes, I split the partners up and they each have to be able to explain the problem and solution on their own. I hold students accountable for the sharing time by randomly asking students to tell me something they learned from the second partner during sharing time.

It takes time to prepare, but students are always engaged during the activity. When I listen in on the sharing, I love to hear my students using the same language we use during our math talks.

Creating their own story problems

One last tip: if you haven't had your students write their own story problems, you might want to start including this as part of your workstations, morning work, or independent practice. I've found that having students write their own story problems increases their understanding of the problems they have to solve in class. I'm always on the lookout for good student problems to use during my math talks. It's a great way to build student confidence and increase engagement. Students love it when I use their problem with the class. I've even received comments about it from parents!

What are your best practices for teaching story problems? I hope you'll share in the comments or by linking up. In the meantime, make sure you check out all the great tips from our fellow bloggers.


  1. Your post was great and very informative. I do emphasize math vocabulary and key words with my kinders right now, but we talk about them in the context of the whole problem and not that a word always means this, etc. We also use strategies and manipulatives to help us solve our problems. I loved how you broke down the different types of tasks. I also refer to the problems as story problems to my kiddos!

  2. I really like how you discuss the types of problems (collection, change, and compare). I think that recognizing the type of problem is huge, and something students need to understand so they can figure out the equation to solve the problem. This just gave me an idea for an anchor chart/ word problem area I can add to my math wall!