word problems

5 Ways to Teach Maths using Word Problems

The way your student responds to word problems will quickly assess their true maths understanding. By using word problems in your maths lessons, you are doing your student a massive favour by highlighting what they know, and what they need to spend a bit more time learning. 

Word problems highlight the ability to think critically and use maths skills outside the classroom, and without following a formula. Often, if students are memorising maths facts by rote, they will struggle with word problems. They will be confused as to what the question is asking and often feel overwhelmed. 

By teaching using concrete, hands-on methods, you can help support your student to understand maths from a whole different perspective. By supporting them to learn using tactile methods, maths becomes an integrated skill, not just something they have memorised to pass the test.

What are word problems?

Word problems are essential testing criteria for your student.You can very quickly identify if their knowledge and understanding of maths concepts is learnt by rote (or using a formula) or is really understood by your student. 

Word problems often pose a challenge because they require reading and comprehending the text of the problem, identifying the question that needs to be answered, and finally creating and solving a numerical equation.

How are word problems used in maths?

Maths-related word problems are regarded as a vital part in mathematics curriculum as they enhance the student’s mental skills, develop logical analysis and boost creative thinking. Possessing the ability to solve maths word problem skills makes a huge difference in one’s career and life. Hence, it should be considered with a great awareness to generate eagerness and interests within the students to develop maths word problem skills, John Marsh shares. 

Word problems are important in maths and helps student develop a number of essential life skills, too. Here's why it's important for your student to understand and be able to effectively navigate word problems throughout their education:

  • Approaching Maths Word Problems. It has been noticed that many students often lack the interest in solving it due to clear, concise understanding of the subject. Mathematics is not just about numerical figures but understanding of the fundamental logic behind it and having the skills to proceed towards solving the problem.
  • Enhancing Creativity. One of the unique features of maths word problem is to encourage students to be more creative in their approach towards a problem. Maths problem solving enables them to be more logical towards a potential problem or issue and to effectively handle it. In other words, it is not restricted to mathematics only but exceeds beyond it. When a student learns how to solve world problem, he is actually learning the logic working behind it and seeking for a way to reach the goal. 
  • Equipping Students to Accept Challenges: Solving maths word problem is a challenging task: it teaches students to use logic and creative thinking, which is combined in executing the task. Visualising the underlying idea in the problem and finding a solution to it makes the task interesting and enjoyable.

Considering the importance of solving maths word problems, students should be effectively guided and supported to achieve this skill.

word problems

How do you fix word problem issues?

If your student answers a word problem incorrectly, it means there are a few gaps to start filling in. Here's a few important questions to ask yourself:

  • Does your student realise the answer doesn’t make sense?
  • Did they not understand the context?
  • Did they not know where to begin and then confused themselves?
  • Where did they get the answer wrong?

With most word problems, the best way to determine the answers to these questions if you ask your student to show their working out. If they show you the process in how they got their answer, you can easily identify what went wrong. Once you can identify the mathematical misconception, you can work from there. 

If you find it challenging to teach your student how to solve word problems, Scottie Atland shares some simple suggestions below that can dramatically improve your lessons:

5 Ways to Teach Word Problems

1. Be More Relaxed & Playful

If your student has anxiety about word problems, try approaching them in a more relaxed and playful way by presenting problems that have more than one right answer, like a maths puzzle or game. This can relieve the pressure of having to find “the right answer” and instead places the emphasis on problem solving skills.

For example, consider this word problem:
Shawn had $156. He went shopping for new hockey skates and now has $12 left.
Find the cost of Shawn’s new hockey skates.

You can revise the problem to something like:
The answer to a subtraction problem is 12. Write down what the equation might be.

The second question gives your student a springboard to work from, since it already indicates the operation. It also allows them to begin at a level of numerical comfort. In addition, because there are many answers to this type of problem, you can discuss with your student how they went about solving it and gain some insight to their conceptual understanding and the strategies used.

As an extension, you can ask your student to write a word problem to match the maths problem they created. These techniques can help your student build confidence in their problem solving abilities and provide insight to you as to how they approach the issue.

Gradually work with your student so they can work up to solving more problems like the first example. 

2. Extract the Numbers

Another way to increase ease with word problems is to extract the numbers – in other words, create “numberless” problems. This is a great way to help your student notice the relationships in a problem and to observe how the language can help them understand those relationships.

It may help some students to read the question aloud. Every word problem tells a story. Before deciding what maths operation is required, let the student retell the story in his own words. Who is involved? Are they receiving gifts, losing something, or dividing a treat?

For example, think about a problem such as:
There are 125 girls participating in a choral competition. Twenty-nine more boys than girls are participating. Find the number of boys in the choral competition. 

Extract the numbers so it reads:
Some girls are participating in a choral competition. There are more boys than girls that will be participating.

Then discuss with your student how they could find the number of boys participating in the choral competition.

By doing this you are helping your student to focus on the situation of the problem, which will lead them to the necessary computation. They can insert their own numbers, or you can slowly introduce the numbers back into the problem for your student to work with when they are ready to test a strategy. This method can also help your student determine when a problem contains extra information that is not necessary for solving the problem.

3. Show the Question using Pictures

Representing the information in the maths problem with hands-on manipulatives, a drawing, or a diagram can also help make sense of the situation.

For example:
"Sara has 15 grapes. How can she divide the fruit between herself and two friends evenly?"

Your student can show the 15 grapes with cubes or other small objects to represent the grapes and move them into three groups to find the answer. Discuss with them how the picture, diagram, chart, or pictoral representation relates to the word problem. 

Ask your student to explain why they chose that way of showing the word problem and why they think it is a good mathematical expression to use.

Using a pictoral representation or diagram to draw out the question can help develop a habit of visualising a problem in smaller chunks. This visual approach can help shape your student’s thinking strategies to begin thinking about where to start the problem solving process.

4. Relate the Question to Real Life

Relate the story to real life to make it more interesting and relevant for your student.
You can create maths problems with using the name of their pets, best friend, Mum or Dad.

For example, if their dog's name is Blacky, you could use the following word problem:

If Blacky ate four treats on Monday and then you gave him 5 extra treats on Tuesday, how many treats did he have altogether?

You can build, draw, or act out the story. Use the blocks or actual objects when you can, as this will engage their kinaesthetic brain. Especially in the lower Math-U-See levels, you may require the student to use the blocks for word problems even when the facts have been learned. Don’t be afraid to use a little drama as well. The purpose is to make it as real and meaningful as possible.

You can also look around the home or classroom for practical applications that use the concepts you have been learning with your students (addition, subtraction, multiplication, finding the unknown, algebra) and ask questions in that context.

5. Keep an Eye out for more Complicated Questions

It's important when teaching word problems to your student that you are keeping an eye out for the things that might get them stuck - language, excessive numbers and other issues. You always want to keep an eye on your student's progress and ability. If they are confident and achieve the correct answer, you can keep making the word problems more complicated to give them a good challenge. 

Here are a few things to remember:

1. Un-necessary information may be included in the problem. For example, we may be told that Suzie is eight years old, but the eight is irrelevant when adding up the number of gifts she received.

2. Some problems may require more than one step to solve. Model these questions carefully and work with the student to achieve the correct answer.

3. There may be more than one way to solve some problems. Experience will help the student choose the easier or preferred method.

4. Estimation is a valuable tool for checking an answer. If an answer is unreasonable, it is possible that the wrong method was used to solve the problem.

word problems

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As we have discussed, the importance of word problems and how maths knowledge affects student confidence and use of maths is crucial to supporting your student. When you can work with your students to give them what they need, you'll have a much easier job teaching!

You can also download our best tips on word problems from our free Mega Bundle below. Just pop in your details below and you'll be sent the entire bundle!

word problems

If you want to know more about the importance of teaching foundational concepts, you can read more in the article How to teach place value.

What strategies have worked when teaching student word problems? Have you found that students have often struggled with this concept? Share in the comments below

Happy word problems!

The Team at Maths Australia

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