4 Simple Steps to Solve a Word Problem

I LOVE teaching third grade math! If I could find a way to teach nothing but third grade math- I would be in heaven. I did not like math as a child. I just couldn't understand WHY! I was THAT kid asking, "When will I use this?" "Why does that work?" My math teachers hated me. And because of that experience, I strive to give my third graders a better experience with math. In my classroom, we always talk about why they need to know it and why it works. 

Third grade math is not easy though! They spend Kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade working on addition and subtraction. Then in third grade, we are expected to teach multiplication and division to mastery. We double the number of operations that students have to be competent in and will see in word problems! Using key words in word problems may have been a suitable strategy in previous years. However, students quickly realize that many of the addition key words can also be used in a multiplication problems. Many division key words look similar to multiplication key words. It isn't easy! They NEED MORE THAN KEY WORDS! Students need to be taught a problem solving strategy that will work every time. 

In my classroom, students are required to use a four step process anytime that they see a word problem. And they see them ALL the time!

It might seem obvious that we need to start the problem solving process by reading the problem, but the reality is that students want to start doing something with the numbers before they finish reading. I require my students to set down their pencil or dry erase marker and read the entire problem. I ask them to visualize what the problem is stating rather than trying to form a plan to solve. I have found that they are much more successful when they really think about what they know BEFORE they start drawing and solving.

After my students have read through the entire problem once, they will begin rereading the problem. This time, I ask that they just read one sentence or phrase at a time. They should draw a math model as they read. The models tend to be much more accurate if students are only reading one piece of the problem at a time. However, sometimes they will get to the end of the problem and discover that their model is not going to help them solve. That's okay! Use the power of the eraser! I call them models rather than drawings because I want my students to understand that math models are not the same as a picture you might draw in art class. No one needs to be an artist in math class!

Models that my students might draw (because I have modeled them):
Equal Group Pictures
Tape Diagrams (also known as Bar Modeling)
Number Bonds
Number Lines

Most students want to jump to writing an equation or number sentence, but in my class, it can't be done until the model is drawn. Once the model is drawn students can better understand what the unknown is and write a number sentence that will help them to accurately solve the word problem. I always remind my students that they need to examine the model before writing the equation. After they solve the equation they need to ask if it is reasonable and then put it back into their model to check for accuracy.

I always require my students to write every word problem answer in a complete sentence. I teach my students to go back to the question and use part of the question in their answer. This increases the probability that students will actually answer the question that was asked. I also require proper capitalization and punctuation because I believe that integrating writing into math will help students to be more successful in both subjects. 

How do you increase student success when tackling math word problems?