Secret to Solving Math Word Problems. Hint: It’s Not about Math
November 12, 2017
Teach students to use stronger reading skills to make them more comfortable, and successful, in math.
How to Use Reading Skills for Solving Math Word Problems
Provide students with a reliable set of rules to follow for any word problem. Knowing exactly what to do when they see a word problem will make them more confident, and stronger, math students. Remind them that these are very similar to the rules they follow in English class so they know they can do it.
Find a printable checklist of these steps here.
- Mark up the question. (a) Underline exactly what you are asked to find. This will ensure you don’t go astray midway through the problem. (b) Circle the numbers you will use to solve the problem. Circling will make them easier to find. (c) Lightly cross out information you know you won’t need to save you time from re-reading. Just as when you read a book, you likely don’t need to know every detail, just the main idea. Notice that these are the same types of annotating skills you use in English class.
- Draw a picture. You don’t need to be an artist. For many math students, there’s truth to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Pictures help most students visualize the problem. It clarifies what they are given and what they need to find. This strategy is particularly good for students with strong visual memory. Notice that this is similar to visualizing when reading in English class.
- Use graph paper, a ruler or protractor. If your picture needs to be accurate (particularly in subjects like geometry), use the most common math tools so you can draw straight lines and accurate angles. The diagonal on graph paper makes a perfect 45 degree angle! This might be particularly important for students who need help with spatial perception.
- Use colored pencils. Using color strategically can make it much easier to visualize details. Or, you can use colors to align your numbers for a multi-step problem if you might make calculation mistakes (e.g. choose red for 1’s, blue for 10’s, and green for 100’s).
- Estimate before solving. Decide what your answer will look like, BEFORE you dive in and solve. Should it be negative or positive? Higher than 100 or less than 5? A number or a person? If your final answer isn’t close, you know you must go back and find your mistake. If it’s within the range, you can think about moving on to the next problem. This is particularly important for students with weaker abstract reasoning. Don’t you sometimes guess the ending of the story? Think of every math problem as a short story that has an ending.
- Show your work. The more you put on the paper, the less you need to keep in short-term memory, and the less likely you are to forget a step or make a mistake. It also will make it much easier to check your work.
- Check your work. Have a plan for how you will check your work. Checking your work can be tedious, but some teachers estimate that as many as 50% of math mistakes are careless errors. There’s no doubt that checking work will improve grades, particularly for students with weaker attention. Don’t you often go back and re-read for key details? That’s just like checking your work.
Get a printable checklist version of these steps here.
All nervousness, particularly math nervousness, can interfere with short-term memory. Solving word problems relies on using short-term memory to read the problem, decide what is being asked, select numbers, and set up an equation. The steps above are key to lessening the burden on short-term memory. In other words, these rules are most important for students with weaker executive functions or who are anxious about math. Regardless, this approach will develop confidence and a positive math mindset in all students.
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