Word problems are the bane of many student’s time in math class. They find the extra information provided by the words to be confusing and overwhelming. This can lead many students to dread working on word problems, but there are some tips to help you solve word problems with more confidence. In this article, we’ll break down how to solve word problems step-by-step.
What are Word Problems in Math?
Word problems are math problems where the question is asked with words instead of only using numbers and mathematical symbols. They are often used in classes to help think critically, reading, and thinking skills since students will not only have to read the problem and determine what question is being asked, but they will also have to solve the problem.
In life, most math problems that you are likely to encounter will be word problems, so understanding how to answer a word problem and how to ask a word problem can be super useful. For example, if someone says that there were ten apples, but someone ate 7 of them, you should be able to figure out that there are only three apples left. This might seem simple, but being able to convert numbers to words and back again is a valuable skill to develop.
Why Do Students Struggle with Math Word Problems?
There are so many reasons why a student might not like solving word problems, so the reason won’t be the same for each student. Many students do have some common reasons why they dislike word problems, and it stems from the combination of math and words.
Generally, students find that they like words or math, but not both. This means that students who thrive in English class are not likely to be the same students who thrive in math class. This combination of words and math can sometimes turn students away from word problems.
Another major hurdle with word problems is just understanding what the problem is asking. Many students find it challenging to work through the words and figure out what the math equation is that they actually need to solve. They find this extra information distracting and annoying.
Since there is so much information in word problems and the student will need to figure out what information is actually important, if a student struggles with reading comprehension or focus, then word problems are likely to be a big challenge for them. Figuring out why you or your student dislikes word problems is a great first step to figuring out the best strategy for you to solve word problems that you may come across.
What are the 5 Steps in Solving Math Word Problems?
Although many people have many different ways of thinking of the steps to solve a word problem, there are a few main steps that you will need to use to solve a word problem. Understanding the parts of a word problem is key to solving a word problem.
Read the problem all the way through
Forgetting details that are important or missing the whole question at the end can be detrimental to answering the questions correctly. For example, if a problem states, “You have 38 apples, what color are your eyes?” and you answer “38,” you would be wrong. It is important to make sure you read the question all the way through and don’t rush into solving what you think it will be asking you.
Figure out exactly what’s being asked of you
Make sure you figure out what is being asked of you and focus on solving that question. Many word problems like to give you details that you won’t need, so don’t focus on the information that isn’t important to you solving the problem itself.
Plan how you will solve the word problem
The best way to plan out how to solve the word problem is to rewrite the words into numbers. This means writing out an equation that you will eventually be solving. This allows you to simplify the chaos of the words into a much more manageable equation and can help you focus on the actual equation at hand.
Solve the mathematical equation that is being asked of you
This is the step where you actually do the math to solve the equation. Many people find that this is actually the simplest part of solving a word problem since, at this point, it is no longer a word problem but is just an equation to be solved.
Check your work
It’s always important to check your work once you’ve finished the problem. Go back and reread the original word problem to check and make sure that you didn’t miss any information and that you answered the question completely. This is an important set when solving any math problem, but it is especially important when solving math word problems since it can be easy to get confused and bogged down in words.
By following this list of five steps, you should be able to solve any word problem. Just remember that it won’t be an overnight fix to your challenges with word problems, so don’t get discouraged if it takes some time for you to develop your skills at solving math word problems.
5 Tips and Tricks to Solving Math Word Problems
Although word problems can be challenging, especially at first, there are some helpful tips and tricks out there that can help you get through word problems in math class.
Practice, practice, practice
It might seem pretty simple, but the more you practice word problems, the better you will become at word problems. With enough practice at word problems, it can start to get easier to understand what the questions are asking and how to sort out the information you need to pay attention to from the information you can disregard.
Focus on the numbers
Of course, like with any math problem, you’ll be focusing on the numbers, but it can be challenging with word problems to see the numbers in all the words. Try circling or in some way emphasizing the numbers as they are written out in the question. Once you are able to sort out the numbers from the mess of words, any word problem can be turned into a normal mathematical equation and can be solved as such.
Learn the common words for math symbols
Understanding which words in the English language is typically used to express which mathematical function can be super helpful. This is a great way to start sorting through the information given to you in the word problem and converting it into a normal mathematical equation. For some people, it can be helpful to study a chart that lists all the words, but there are really four main categories of words that you should be focused on.
A word problem is likely going to be asking you to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, so learning which words go with which function is a great place to start. Words like more than or less than are pretty straightforward but understanding that a question that asks what each person has is talking about division might be a little more complicated for some people.
Cross out extra information
Information like the names of characters or the location that the question is taking place in are just there to confuse you, most of the time. Learning to zone out this information and focus on the equation that you’re being asked to solve can help you work through this type of problem more efficiently. Crossing out the information can help your brain not focus on that information every time you reread the question.
Write down what the question is actually asking
Try underlining, highlighting, or rewriting the question that the word problem is asking you to solve. Focusing on what you actually need to focus on is super important to solving word problems correctly since if you misinterpret what the question is asking, you will really be struggling to try to get the right answer.
Below is an example word problem and then how to apply these tips and tricks to that word problem to help solve it. This is a simple word problem, but these tools can be used to solve much more complicated word problems too.
“Over summer break, Sarah went to visit her friend Iris at her grandmother’s lake house. The house was surrounded by fruit trees, and the girls spent the days picking fruit. One day they came back to the house with nine apples, three oranges, and 12 plums to split between Sarah, Iris, and Iris’s grandma. If they split each type of fruit evenly, how many total pieces of fruit will Sarah get?”
“Over summer break, Sarah went to visit her friend Iris at her grandmother’s lake house. The house was surrounded by fruit trees, and the girls spent the days picking fruit. One day they came back to the house with nine apples, three oranges, and 12 plums to split (division) between Sarah, Iris, and Iris’s grandma. If they split each type of fruit evenly, how many total pieces of fruit will Sarah get?”
You are looking for how many pieces of fruit Sarah gets, so understanding that you will need to use addition and division is important to the problem. The final problem, written out in numbers, looks something like: (9+3+12)/3=8. This means that Sarah would get eight pieces of fruit.
3 Fun Ways to Teach Math Word Problems
Part of the way you understand word problems is how they are taught to you. As a teacher, your job is to get the information across to the students in a way that will make them understand it and want to use it. Word problems can be a challenge for any teacher, but we have some tips and tricks to help you teach your students word problems.
Have a set of steps to work through
Making sure that you have a set of steps for your students to work through, such as the five steps we talked about above, is a great way to make word problems less overwhelming. Try to find some way to make the steps stick. Many teachers use an acronym to help their students remember the order of the steps.
Use real-world problems
A large part of the challenge with math word problems is that students struggle to see what the importance of word problems is. They see math hidden in a sentence that is often designed to trick them, and they get frustrated. Helping your students see how they might interact with math word problems outside of the school setting can be a great way for them to start to understand why they are learning word problems.
Turn math time into a game or puzzle
Math, in general, is not always a student’s favorite subject, so if you can find any game or puzzle that will help get your students excited about learning and practicing math problems, that will help immensely. Kids love puzzles and games, so trying to find some ways to turn math into a big puzzle or a game that your class can play together can help get more students excited about learning math.
Many word puzzle books will have specific sections for teaching math, and since word puzzles are all about pulling out the useful information from the words, they are great ways to help students practice their math word problems. If you tell students that they are solving puzzles, they may even like solving them without even realizing that what you are really doing is having them solve math word problems.
Wrapping Things Up: How to Solve Math Word Problems Effectively
Solving word problems effectively is all about reading the problem carefully and being able to pull the numbers and functions out of the words. This can seem challenging at first, but if you take it slow and practice frequently, you may find that word problems become one of your favorite things to do in math. Just remember to stay focused and keep practicing!