5 Easy Steps to Solving Word Problems

Word problems strike fear into the hearts of many students, and the trauma can even carry into adulthood. This is why word problems are the topic of many education jokes.

“If two trains start at the same station and travel in opposite directions at the same speed, when will the bacon be ready for breakfast?”

This is obviously a silly scenario, but it shows how word problems are regarded by many: a mangle of confusion that doesn’t make sense and can’t be solved!

Why Are Word Problems Difficult for Children?

Why can word problems be so confusing and scary? There are a few possible reasons.

  • Word problems are often introduced to us at an age before our skills of abstract thinking are fully developed. However, a student’s imagination is a great asset to use in understanding word problems!
  • Word problems are sometimes simply included as the “harder problems” at the end of homework assignments and the student is never really taught how to approach them.
  • It is sometimes ignored that a student’s math and reading ability come into play when word problems are assigned. But if the second grade math student is still only reading on a first-grade level, he will have difficulty solving word problems even if he is otherwise good at math! It can thus be helpful to assess both a student’s math and reading ability to set him up for success. The tutoring service provided by masterygenius.com is a great option since both math and reading skills can be addressed.

A quick tip before we get started…

Explain to students that the word “problem” really means “question.” A word problem is just asking a question to which the students must find an answer. Show them that you need to identify the question before you even worry about which math operations are going to be used. Word problems can be treated like mysteries: the students are the detectives that are going to use the clues in the question to find the answer!

So what are the five easy steps to solving word problems? Let’s take a look!

Five Easy Steps to Solving Word Problems (WASSP)

  1. Write (or draw) what you know.
  2. Ask the question.
  3. Set up a math problem that could answer the question.
  4. Solve the math problem to get an answer.
  5. Put the answer in a sentence to see if the answer makes sense!

Let’s look at an example word problem to demonstrate these steps.

Matt has twelve cookies he can give to his friends during lunchtime. If Matt has three friends sitting at his table, how many cookies can Matt give to each of his friends?

1. Write (or draw) what you know.

It is important to convince students that they do not have to immediately know what math operation is required to solve the problem. They first need only understand the scenario itself. In this example, the student could simply write down “12 cookies” and “3 friends,” or draw Matt with 12 cookies sitting at a table with three other children.

2. Ask the question.

Again, we don’t need to know what the math operation is yet! We just need to identify what is actually being asked. What do we NOT know?

The student could write, “How many cookies can each of Matt’s friends have?”

Alternatively, the student could draw a question mark over each friend’s head, maybe with a thought bubble of a cookie!

3. Set up a math problem that could answer the question.

  • It can be a good idea to teach students “clue” words or phrases in problems which can identify what math operation may be needed. However, this should not be the student’s only skill for deciding what math operation to use, because these “clue” words can sometimes be confusing. For example, the phrases “how many in all” and “how many more” seem very similar to a student, but the first phrase indicates addition and the second phrase indicates subtraction!
  • It is good for a student to also be able to reason what math operation is needed based on understanding the scenario itself (which is a better builder of true critical thinking skills). This is why the first two steps (write what you know and ask the question) are so important. The student that has a true understanding of the scenario will be better equipped to reason what math operation is needed.

In this example, the “clue” word (if you are using that method of reasoning) would be “each,” which indicates division. Or, the student could understand that Matt has to split, or divide, the cookies among his friends. Thus a division problem is needed!

Dividing 12 cookies among 3 friends means 12 is divided by 3.

4. Solve the problem.

12 ÷ 3 = 4

It is important to note that using units can be a good idea. Otherwise, the answer could be misunderstood. Is it 4 cookies, or 4 friends, or something else?

12 cookies ÷ 3 friends = 4 cookies per friend

5. Put the answer in a sentence to see if the answer makes sense.

“Each of Matt’s friends can have four cookies.”

Does this answer make sense? It seems reasonable. How could this step help identify an incorrect answer?

What if the student had decided this was a multiplication problem?

12 cookies × 3 friends = 36 cookies per friend

If the student then writes a sentence using the answer, he may realize the answer can’t be right.

“Each of Matt’s friends can have 36 cookies.”

How would that be possible if Matt only had 12 cookies to start with? This must not be a multiplication problem. Let’s try again!

Practice the Five Easy Steps for Word-Problem Success!

Steps 1 and 2 (Write what you know and Ask the question) help the student gain an understanding of the scenario.

Steps 3 and 4 (Set up the math problem and Solve the problem) can be more easily navigated with critical thinking once the scenario is understood.

Step 5 (Put the answer in a sentence) can help the student decide whether the answer makes sense.

Now your student is ready for word-problem success!

Make sure to start at the student’s level of understanding so he can experience success and build confidence, moving on to more challenging problems as appropriate. Customized curriculum is always best, which again makes masterygenius.com a great option if tutoring is needed. Students are assessed and then matched with a curriculum that strikes balance between building confidence and tackling challenges, leading to topic mastery.