Tackling Math Word Problems

Most math concepts are introduced in a certain grade, are built upon in other grades and then disappear. However, math word problems travel alongside the math curriculum from kindergarten to high school. They can be used for addition and subtraction problems, as well as calculus and algebra. Yet, solving them can be rather tricky. Not only do students need to figure out what operation is necessary to solve the problem but they also need to have the skills to identify the relevant information in the question in order to find the right solution. It is not uncommon for a student to misread a question and calculate a different value than what is asked.

                Despite the difficulty and anxiety that word problems can produce, there are a variety of methods that one can use to solve them. Today, we are going to focus on some basic steps that any student can use to get through a word problem. These steps can be used at all grade levels and will help break down the problem into more manageable chunks.

  1. What is the question asking you to find out? Take a look at the last part of the question: what is it asking you to solve? It might be useful to write down the unit that the answer is looking for, such as the number of cans, the distance, the speed, the degrees, etc.  If you get an answer with a different unit than what the question is asking for, you know you need to go back and look at the question again.
  2. What operation do you need to use in order to solve the problem? Take a look at the language of the question. Is it asking you for a total amount? Most likely, you would need to use multiplication or addition. If you are finding out a difference (how much longer is it?), it points to subtraction. If the word “each” or “per” pops up, you could be looking at division. Once you know what you’re looking for, and what operation you need to use, you’re almost there.
  3. What information do you need to solve this problem? Sometimes, word problems can be intentionally tricky and contain extra facts to confuse you. Make sure you are only using the numbers you need in order to solve the problem. Underline or highlight the important information in the problem that you are going to use to help you solve the problem. Look at the units of measurement to help you figure out what information you can use to figure out the answer.

Remember, these three steps are designed to make a word problem more manageable for all students in any grade level. Next week, we are going to continue our talk about word problems and discuss some additional methods that are effective for solving them.


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