5 Strategies to Learn to Solve Math Word Problems

A critical step in math fluency is the ability to solve math word problems. The funny thing about solving math word problems is that it isn’t just about math. Students need to have strong reading skills as well as the growth mindset needed for problem-solving. Strong problem solving skills need to be taught as well. In this article, let’s go over some strategies to help students improve their math problem solving skills when it comes to math word problems. These skills are great for students of all levels but especially important for students that struggle with math anxiety or students with animosity toward math.

Signs of Students Struggling with Math Word Problems

It is important to look at the root cause of what is causing the student to struggle with math problems. If you are in a tutoring situation, you can check your students reading level to see if that is contributing to the issue. You can also support the student in understanding math keywords and key phrases that they might need unpacked. Next, students might need to slow their thinking down and be taught to tackle the word problem bit by bit.

How to Help Students Solve Math Word Problems

Focus on Math Keywords and Mathematical Key Phrases

The first step in helping students with math word problems is focusing on keywords and phrases. For example, the words combined or increased by can mean addition. If you teach keywords and phrases they should watch out for students will gain the cues needed to go about solving a word problem. It might be a good idea to have them underline or highlight these words.

Cross out Extra Information

Along with highlighting important keywords students should also try to decipher the important from unimportant information. To help emphasize what is important in the problem, ask your students to cross out the unimportant distracting information.  This way, it will allow them to focus on what they can use to solve the problem.

Encourage Asking Questions

As you give them time to read, allow them to have time to ask questions on what they just read. Asking questions will help them understand what to focus on and what to ignore. Once they get through that, they can figure out the right math questions and add another item under their problem-solving strategies.

Draw the Problem

A fun way to help your students understand the problem is through letting them draw it on graph paper. For example, if a math problem asks a student to count the number of fruits that Farmer John has, ask them to draw each fruit while counting them. This is a great strategy for visual learners.

Check Back Once They Answer

Once they figured out the answer to the math problem, ask them to recheck their answer. Checking their answer is a good habit for learning and one that should be encouraged but students need to be taught how to check their answer. So the first step would be to review the word problem to make sure that they are solving the correct problem. Then to make sure that they set it up right. This is important because sometimes students will check their equation but will not reread the word problem and make sure that the equation is set up right. So always have them do this first! Once students believe that they have read and set up the correct equation, they should be taught to check their work and redo the problem, I also like to teach them to use the opposite to double check, for example if their equation is 2+3=5, I will show them how to take 5 which is the whole and check their work backwards 5-3 and that should equal 2. This is an important step and solidifies mathematical thinking in children.

Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are a great way to remember all of the types of math strategy in this post. The following are ones that I have heard of and wanted to share:

Solving Math Word Problems
Cubes Math Problem Solving Strategy

CUBES Word Problem Strategy

Cubes is a mnemonic to remember the following steps in solving math word problems:

C: Circle the numbers

U: Underline the question

B: Box in the key words

E: Eliminate the information

S: Solve the problem & show your work

RISE Word Problem Strategy

Rise is another way to explain the steps needed to solve problems:

R: Read and reread

I: Illustrate what is being asked

S: Solve by writing your equation or number sentences

E: Explain your thinking

RISE Math Word Problem Strategy
COINS Math Word Problem Startegy

COINS Word Problem Strategy

C: Comprehend the questions

O: Observe the data

I: Illustrate the problem

N: Write the number sentence (equation)

S: Solve

Understand -Plan – Solve – Check Word Problem Strategy

This is a simple step solution to show students the big picture. I think this along with one of the mnemonic devices helps students with better understanding of the approach.

Understand: What is the question asking? Do you understand all the words?

Plan: What would be a reasonable answer? In this stage students are formulating their approach to the word problem. 

Solve: What strategies will I use to solve this problem? Am I showing my thinking? Here students use the strategies outlined in this post to attack the problem.

Check: Students will ask themselves if they answered the question and if their answer makes sense. 

Understand -Plan - Solve - Check Word Problem Strategy

If you need word problems to use with your classroom, you can check out my word problems resource below.

Math Word Problems

Teaching students how to approach and solve math word problems is an important skill. Solving word problems is the closest math skill that resembles math in the real world. Encouraging students to slow their thinking, examine and analyze the word problem and encourage the habit of answer checking will give your students the learning skills that can be applied not only to math but to all learning. I also wrote a blog post on a specific type of math word problem called cognitively guided instruction you can read information on that too. It is just a different way that math problems are written and worth understanding to teach problem solving, click here to read.

Solving Math Word Problems