While many teachers and students alike may get that pit-in-the-stomach feeling when they hear “word problems” in math class, I do not. I get excited and hope for a fun challenge. The best part? You and your students can love word problems too.
Why Word Problems?
If used correctly, word problems are not problematic at all. Every day we encounter situations where we need to think critically, ask questions, brainstorm solutions, and test theories. Word problems are these situations. They are a way to make sense of the “why” we learn math at all. Good word problems will relate to students’ lives and have meaning to them.
If you tend to think of word problems as rotting veggies instead of gold nuggets, start simple.
You only need one problem. Open your math curriculum or student workbook to any page until you find a word problem. Or take one from tomorrow’s lesson. Then, cover up the question, or take it out altogether.
Without the question, students can focus on the situation. They can understand the characters and relate to the circumstances presented in the problem. Taking out the question can also take away fear of failure for your reluctant students, since there is no pressure to find the right answer.
If you have never done this, don’t be surprised to use your entire lesson time on just one problem. This also works great in a teacher-led small group during math center time.
Allow Students to Wander
This is my favorite part.
Ask students to come up with a list of their own questions that can be answered by the information in the problem. If you’re feeling brave, allow students to wander in their thinking and ask questions that relate to the situation, even if they don’t have enough information to find the answers. That’s okay for now.
When students ask their own questions, they begin to really understand the problem, and not just look for key words to tell them what operation to use.
After students come up with a few questions, they can begin to solve them. If they need more information in order to solve a question they made up, let them make up the needed information too! They can add a sentence to the word problem that explains the extra information and then solve their problem.
Focus on the Why
In real life, I might really need to divide 25 by 4 if I’m making small groups for my math rotations. This is the WHY I need to be able to divide 25 by 4.
As students share their variety of questions, point out the “whys” that you notice. Attaching value to this will help these word problems seem more real and important to students.
One of the most rewarding parts of using word problems in this way is that students of all levels can access the same problem. Acknowledge the creativity and uniqueness as students share interesting questions and strategies for solving problems. Praise the risks students take and encourage them to think deeply about the problem.
As you wrap up your math block, bring the focus back to the math objective for the day. Ask one or two students to share a question they asked (that relates to the day’s objective) and how they solved it.
This is all great, but we supposed to be working on multiplication strategies and my students mostly asked questions that called for adding and subtracting.
I only believe that if this is your first time approaching word problems in this way. As you do this more, your students will get more creative, take more risks, and some will even begin to solve problems you weren’t expecting them to see until next year.
If you really, honestly don’t have anyone come up with the question you want answered, just use Student A. Tell students that a mystery student, Student A, came up with a great question you want the class to solve. Then give whatever question you want.
Steps For Students
While this strategy may help you in your teaching and classroom, sometimes it’s nice to have something quick and easy for students to reference when they’re working independently. You are in luck today! Download this free bookmark to help students make sense of and solve word problems like a pro!
Guided Math Resources
Take a break from the overwhelming textbook and use these math tri-folds to focus on one standard during guided math groups.