How to Use Numberless Word Problems to Boost Student Success

I’ve taught a few “number pluckers” in the past.

You too?

I’m not surprised! Number pluckers are those kids who, upon seeing a word problem, expertly “pluck” out the numbers and add them together.


I did it!

I know you are shaking your head and smirking right now. It’s an unavoidable rite of passage for all teachers to try and reach a number plucker.

You KNOW I want you to avoid using keywords to help these students… but what can you do instead?

Enter Numberless Word Problems!

What is a Numberless Word Problem? 

Numberless word problem is a *bit* of a misnomer! These problems DO have numbers… we just aren’t taking a look at them right away. 
When we create a numberless problem, our goal is to draw our students’ focus to the context of a story problem rather than to the numbers in the problem. 
In presenting a numberless problem to your students you will slowly unfold the problem and ask questions which will prompt your students to attend to: 
  • The action of the problem. 
  • The information they have been given. 
  • The information they may be missing. 
  • The words in the problem and what they mean or imply. 
  • The question or questions that could be asked or answered with that information. 
Your number pluckers will have no choice but to attend to the action of the problem- there is no other choice! 

How Do I Teach a Numberless Word Problem? 

Begin by showing your students a context. No numbers. No question. Take a look at this example: 
You and your students will read the context and you will prompt your students to discuss what they are seeing. 
  • What is happening in this story? 
  • What could be the number of kids who started at the bus stop? 
  • If more kids arrived is the number of kids at the bus stop getting larger or smaller? 

Next, you will show your students a *bit* more information. In this scenario, I added the number of kids who showed up at the bus stop. 
  • What new information do we have?
  • Could you draw a quick picture that shows what happened? 
  • What information do we still need to know? 
You will finally reveal all of the numeric information in the word problem… but notice… there is still no question! 
  • What new information have we been given? 
  • Can you draw a quick picture that shows what is happening now? 
  • How did your picture change? 
  • What question could we ask about this information? 
Lastly, you will add the question into the story and allow your students to solve. Still, you will want to conduct a conversation with your students! 
  • What operation do you think can help us solve this problem? 
  • Could you draw a model that matches this story problem? 
  • What question are you answering? Could you turn your answer into a statement? 
  • What is your answer? Does it make sense? 
  • How do you know? 

Is This Too Much of a Crutch? 

You are training your students to think about the context of word problems. This is a scaffold that is SO important for your students! Each grade level attends to specific problem types. Some are more straight forward (add to with a missing total for example) and some are much more difficult (a comparison word problem or a subtraction problem where the change is unknown for example). 
These type of problems help our students learn to dissect a problem and think about the action and context so that they can be successful in the future! 
Are you ready to give this strategy a try? Grab my free “Getting Started Guide” which includes problems to get you started today! 

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