5 Tips for Helping Students Make Sense of Word Problems

teaching word problems

How many of you have ever given your students a challenging problem and within SECONDS heard something like…

“I don’t get it.” 


“What are we supposed to do?

This is the point where every teacher sighs and wonders where they went wrong as teachers–or where the students have been during the last months of teaching!  I think part of the problem comes from the fact that we too often make assumptions about what our students know about “tackling” problems.  Whether they struggle with reading–or maybe with motivation–looking at a problem can often lead to shut down from some students.  I have a few tips that I have found to be successful.  See what you think!

1.  Sometimes it’s ok to read the problem to the class (or to a small group or individual).  Yes, part of math is being able to make sense of a problem independently, but we also need to remember that separating the reading from the math provides equal access for all students.  Let’s not make all our struggling readers math deficient as well! Reading problems aloud can get students’ brains working, focused and ready.  Think about your goal–if your goal is “Students will independently be able to read and make sense of a problem”, then this tip is not useful.  If your goal is more math oriented–like “Students will work to solve multi-step problems.” or “Students will use estimation strategies to check their work.”, reading certainly can be taken out of the equation (pun totally intended).

problem solving
2.  Encourage students to take “Think Time” before putting pencil to paper or before working in groups.  Ask them to reread the problem.  Ask them to imagine or “visualize” what is happening.  This could be a great time to ask students to find the question or think about what they need to do or what operations they might need to use.  After some think time, ask them to work a bit independently–even if you DO plan on having them work together.  By each getting started on their own, they bring something to the table for their group to discuss.  This really helps minimize having one partner or team member completely take over–because everyone has SOME sort of start to talk about.
cooperative problem solving
3.  Remind students that sketches, drawings, and charts can help them get key ideas or details down on their paper so they can start making sense of them.  Simply rewriting key information or labels can help too–it can help students get started processing the information.  ALL students can do this–they can all start looking for key information to record.
problem solving

 4.  Two heads are better than one!  Cooperative problem solving can be SUCH a game changer for students who tend to sit back passively.  That being said, it does take some work up front with students to learn the art of partnering.  I have a blog post from this fall about it if you are interested.  Just CLICK HERE to read it!  Some students navigate this seamlessly with minimal coaching and others need help.  Put your observation “lens” on and watch to see how students work together–and giving reminders about what is expected in partnerships is a great idea.  Creating an anchor chart together about how partnerships work gives you a visual to refer to all year long.

problem solving
5.  Finally, sharing ideas and talking about problems AFTER students finish can give new insight as to ways to organize work, alternative strategies, and more.  If students are already in pair, match two pairs together to share out their strategies and solutions.  Hear something interesting as you circulate?  Bring it back to the entire class so everyone can benefit.

So…we really need to put our students in positions where they can take some ownership and dig in without us “‘spoonfeeding” them and coaching too much!  Coming soon–a blog post about how to do just that!  Want to see another blog post about helping students makes sense of problems?  Just click the image below to take you there!

The problem pictured in this post is from the following resource if you are interested in checking it out!
Would you like to pin this post for later?  Here you go!
math strategies for word problems