Timmy buys 4882 melons, he eats 3881 of them, what is the diameter of the sun?
By: Amy Bilek, Math Instructional Coach K-8 at Frances Xavier Warde School in Chicago
Over the years I’ve learned that most of my friends hated solving word problems. Likewise, my students feel overwhelmed by any word problems, and my fellow teachers become frustrated during the word problems unit. Are there better strategies? Simple ways to empower students in becoming a great word problem solver? YES!
I’ve noted various posters in school that provide students with clues for approaching story/word problems. However, I’ve found these approaches are wholly unproductive because they rob students of the opportunity to develop the techniques required to be effective problem solvers. This article on keywords expounds on the negative effects of teaching with keywords and CUBES.
Three Ways To Help Students Solve Math Word Problems
The following are three suggestions to help your students build reliable techniques in solving word problems. Let’s explore the options using this problem:
1. Remove all the numbers.
One exceptional strategy I’ve used is removing numbers from math word problems. Without the numbers students are able to focus on the “how” of solving the problem rather than the calculations. Consider presenting your next story problem with the numbers blacked out.
2. Encourage students to create a bar model.
Bar models are rectangles used to represent numbers and quantities. They facilitate transferring verbal information in word problems into pictorial representations. Bar models provide a bridge between the story and the abstract equation and help students identify suitable approaches to a solution. This video explains the benefits of using the tool, bar models.
After blacking out the numbers, have your students create a bar model. Use the bar model to discuss the plan for solving the problem.
Once the students have visually understood the problem, add in the numbers and the students can determine the suitable solution and complete the calculations.
3. Give the answer at the beginning.
Some students approach math as merely an answer-finding experience. A teaching approach that devalues the “quest for the right answer” and places the focus on making sense of how it is solved is to provide the answer with the problem. With this method, the compelling math work is not about finding the answer, but rather proving the answer in a variety of ways (diagrams, number models, written explanation, etc.)
These changes in word problems for math may initially feel uncomfortable for you and your students. However, I encourage you to experiment with this, you may be surprised at the transformation in your student’s discussions and approaches.
- Are students more focused on making meaning rather than finding “clue words”?
- Armed with the bar model do students feel more confident with whatever word problem comes their way?
- When the answer is already given on the board, are students more focused on showing their diagrams and work in a way that clearly justifies the answer?
- Do you feel like you are cultivating critical thinkers rather than story-problem-decoders?