Teaching students to read and understand word problems is one of the most difficult challenges math teachers face. Many of these word problems are multi-step…and often times not grade appropriate. What’s a teacher to do?!? Here’s some math problem solving resources that have been game changers for me when helping my students learn to be great math problem solvers.
First off, we ditched CUBES and other similar strategies. If you use this and it has worked excellently for you, then keep on keepin’ on! No judgement here! I’ve had many, many students who were able to follow the steps but were not able to think deeply about the problems. We now spend more time working to deeply understand problems and less time on acronyms.
If you are wanting explicit steps to guide the problem-solving process, you can check out this awesome resource from Brittany at Mix and Math. I love that it comes in a bookmark form! This makes it easy for students to keep track of where they are in the process. You can check out her blog on supporting students in problem solving here! We loosely follow this process, but I never make students work strictly through the steps.
Problem Solving without an Acronym – Read, Read, Read
When faced with a challenging word problem…or any word problem for that matter, I train students to read the problem more than once. For the first read, we put our pencils down. This helps students who like to just start circling things or who like to pull numbers and guess at operations. We just read! Then we reword and tell back the problem in our own words. This might sound something like this:
“There were 14 bags of candy. Each bag of candy had 35 pieces of candy in it. The candy will be split evenly among 9 students. How much candy will each student get?”
After reading the problem we might paraphrase by saying, “Okay, we know we have several bags of candy that each have a certain amount of candy in them. Then we are going to take all the candy and share it with 9 students.”
Next, we will read the problem a second time with our pencil in hand. As we read, we circle or underline important information. I am not specific on whether students circle or underline. This is just to help us pay attention to the special information. Here is what I am specific about: students MAY NOT just circle numbers. So, for instance we wouldn’t circle just 14, we would circle 14 bags of candy. The number 14 means nothing by itself, we need to know what we have 14 of and what that means in the story.
Focus on the Action
After reading a second time and identifying the important information, we will begin to discuss the action or actions happening in the story. This will help us determine the number of steps we think the problem has. The most important question we ask ourselves is “Do we have the total?” This guides our thinking in almost every word problem we solve! For this question, we do not currently have the total, so we know we will either need to add or multiply to find the total amount of candy we are starting with. Once we know the total, we know the candy is being split, shared, or divided between students.
Click the link to grab the printable version of this “Do I have the total” Anchor Chart.
As we begin to solve, we eliminate answer choices along the way, especially trick answers! So, for instance, we would immediately get rid of 490 since that is the total amount of candy, not how much candy each student gets. I do not provide students with explicit written out steps we follow when solving word problems. The goal is to practice this process enough that many students can execute this type of thinking when working on their own.
- We read problems more than once to help us really understand what is happening.
- We think about the actions of the story and whether we have the total or if we need the total.
- We eliminate wrong or unreasonable answer choices as we work
Rachel at Chalk and Coffee also has a fabulous anchor chart for this! She uses the acronym FAST to teach her students problem solving strategies: identify the Facts, take Action (what’s your plan?), Solve and show your work, Think if your answer is reasonable or not. This is a great acronym that still focuses on understanding!
Lastly, y’all know I love all things Lead4ward! Sometimes students are just plain stuck! And that’s okay! Getting stuck is an important part of problem solving. Productive struggle is my favorite! Lead4ward has some great resources for helping students get “unstuck!”
These questions help students guide themselves out of being stuck! Or help you as the teacher with what to ask students to help them get unstuck, without having to take away the power of productive struggle.