Word problems have long been a source of frustration for both students and teachers. But, in the real world, numbers aren’t found in isolation! Math is about recognizing the problem we are trying to solve, developing a plan to solve that problem and then carrying out the plan and checking to see if the solution makes sense.
When our students are struggling to accurately solve word problems, there are a number of common roadblocks that might be at play. Each of these common errors tells us something about our students and their problem solving strategies. And, in each case, there are things we can do to support our students through their errors as well.
Word Problem Error #1: The Number Plucker
The number plucker looks at a word problem, plucks out the numbers and adds them together. The context of the problem is of no consequence to the number plucker- they are there to pluck, add and exclaim “I’m done!” as quickly as they can.
What do we know about the number plucker?
The number plucker doesn’t see word problems or story problems as an opportunity to solve authentic problems about math. Perhaps this is because they have had difficulty in understanding the context of the problem. Perhaps this is because they see the purpose of word problems as getting “an answer” as opposed to “an answer that makes sense”. For whatever reason, the number plucker needs support in understanding the context of word problems.
How can we support the number plucker?
The number plucker needs help to understand the context of the word problem. Numberless word problems might do the trick! Numberless word problems work in a sequence that begins with a story problem with no numbers at all. Your number pluckers will have nothing to pluck and are forced to attend to the context! As your students move through the sequence from numberless to numbered problems, an abundance of conversation supports your students in understanding the context– which is exactly what they need!
- Numberless Word Problems with Sums to 10
- Numberless Word Problems with Sums to 20
- Numberless Word Problems with Sums to 100
- Numberless Word Problems: Multiplication and Division
Word Problem Error #2: The Key Word Hunter
The key word hunter was taught to solve word problems alongside an anchor chart. They learned that “altogether” means to add and that “find the difference” means to subtract.
What do we know about the key word hunter?
Much like the number plucker, context means very little to the key word hunter although they are looking for *some* hint as to the structure of the problem which is a start! They key word hunter knows that we are taking pieces of information given in the word problem and are trying to do *something* with these pieces of information. Unfortunately, they are not able to attend to the action in a word problem beyond the most obvious key words.
How can we support the key word hunter?
Much like the number plucker, numberless word problems are a great place to start with the key word hunter. They will learn to attend to the context and action of a story problem. In addition, visual models are a strong tool to use with this student. Whether you are using number bonds to show the relationship between part and whole or a tape diagram which allows your students to relate more pieces of information, visual models can help your students to visualize the task at hand.
Sorting word problems can also help your key word hunter to attend to the context of a word problem. Asking your student to sort problems that have a missing part vs. problems that have a missing whole is a great lead in to a conversation about how key words can often be misleading!
Word Problem Error #3: The “Almost There” Student
The almost there student has a strong understanding of the context of a story problem. They just aren’t sure how to relate the context of the story problem to an equation that might help them solve.
What do we know about the “Almost There” student?
We know that this student understands the context of a story problem. When we talk about students who struggle with story problems because they have a “comprehension issue” this student does NOT fit the profile! Their comprehension is solid— but their ability to relate the context to math concepts is missing.
How can we support the “almost there” student?
This student may have some gaps in their math understanding. Fill those gaps and they will be well on their way to solving word problems!
- Looking at a number bond or tape diagram, can your student identify the part and whole? If not, fill this gap!
- Is your student able to relate addition and subtraction? If not, fill this gap!
- Supporting your students in understanding related facts and fact families might be helpful!
- Given a missing part OR missing whole in a number bond or tape diagram, can your student solve to find the missing number? If not, this might be your next step after working with fact families.
Word Problem Resources
Using different types of word problem resources can help you to support your students in different ways.
Word Problem Task Cards can be a useful tool when you want your students to attend the the structure of math problems. You can use the cards to create sorting activities.
Word Problem Notebooks are a useful tool when you want your students to draw models and visual representations of word problems and to connect these models to an equation.
Numberless Word Problems help get to the heart of the action or context of a word problem. Because you start with no numbers and employ a great deal of conversation these problems are simple to differentiate and give all students a point of access into the activity.