a routine for solving word problems + a freebie!

Admit it.  As a child you hated word problems.  You read them and your first thought was, "Wait.  WHAT????"  Then you would read it again and your next thought was, "Well who in their right mind would buy 6,000 cartons of cantaloupes anyway?"  I know these thoughts are going through my students' heads all the time.  all. the. time.  I can see the panic in their eyes as they read the problem and realize they have no idea what the problem is about let alone how to solve it.  

I have been working on a routine that is easy for my 5th graders to follow every time they come across a word problem.  It has just four steps.

Step 1: Understand the Problem

Sounds easier said than done right?  The first thing I tell my students to do is just read the problem.  Don't worry about how to solve it.  Just read it.  Think about what the problem is about.  Is it about Sandy and pizza?  Kids and baseball teams?  We're talking big picture main idea here.

Now tell them to read the problem again.  This time, make a list of any important information that's given from the problem.  Don't rewrite the entire problem.  Use short phrases or even symbols (the kids should naturally come up with their own shortcuts, like writing "J" instead of "Julie").  Some kids get a twisted satisfaction out of crossing out any unimportant language in the problem.  Go ahead and let em.

You know they fully understand the problem when they can use the important information to summarize it back to you.

Step 2: Make a Plan

Sometimes, you read a problem and know exactly what strategy you want to use.  Other times, it's not so simple.  This is the step that requires the most teacher support.  Kids will need access to a bank of possible strategies to use that they can refer to.  They will also need to become familiar with each strategy.  This can be done a couple different ways.  

One option is to launch your word problem workshop by solving problems using each of the different strategies.  These can be put together as a packet of exemplars that can be referred to later.  The advantage to this option is that your students will fully understand each strategy and how to use it efficiently.  The disadvantage is that it can decrease flexibility in your students.  If their current word problem doesn't match one of the exemplars, your students can quickly become pigeonholed.

Another option is to present a variety of word problems and give your students the freedom to choose which strategy they want to use each time.  Since there are no exemplars to compare to, the kids won't become stuck.  But they will also be less likely to try out a strategy until they see it in action and are given the opportunity to practice.  And it takes longer for them to independently make a plan and pick out an appropriate strategy.  Despite the disadvantages, this is the option I use in my classroom. Eventually, the consistency pays off in the form of the students becoming more flexible mathematical thinkers.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the plan doesn't have to be perfect.  If your kids are stuck and can't think of a strategy, the best thing to do it to pick one and try it.  If it doesn't work, they will gain more information that they can use to reevaluate the problem and pick a new strategy.

Step 3: Carry out the Plan

This step usually goes one of two ways: either it's smooth sailing and the kid solves the problem on the first try, or you take one look at their paper and can see exactly how frustrating the previous night was.  You may even see dried tears on the page.  These are my favorite kinds of papers.  They show such perseverance!  Yesterday, I received a worksheet and the entire front was covered in equations and division and some other stuff that I could not follow.  Underneath was more work that had been erased.  Several times.  Over this work, in large angry letters was written WRONG!  WRONG!  WRONG!  WRONG!  Then on the back was a neat chart where she organized a guess and check strategy, eventually taking her to the correct answer.  Today, she had the honor of presenting her worksheet to the class.  Not the student who got the answer right on the first try.  The one who failed a thousand times and stuck with it.

Step 4: Answer the Question

This is the most frustrating part for me as a teacher.  I see all this amazing perseverance, and then they don't answer the question!  AHHHHHH!  It's a careless error and so hard to correct.  The best advice I can give to fix this is to be consistent about making them stick to the routine.  At the end of every problem, they must write their answer in a complete sentence.  You'll see on the handout I provided (yep, there's a freebie linked!), that part of Step 2: Make a Plan is for the kids to restate the question by writing "I need to find out...." (ex. if the question is "How many pieces of pizza do Tommy and Kim eat altogether?" the kids should write "I need to find out how many pieces of pizza Tommy and Kim eat altogether.")   After solving the problem, they can use this statement to remind them of the question they need to answer.  But I cannot emphasize enough to be firm on making them write it in a sentence.  The extra effort it takes for them to write the sentence as opposed to simply circling their answer 1) helps them to focus on the question and 2) solidifies this step into memory.

Did someone say freebie?  Click here for a link to download my handout on the 4 Steps to Solving Word Problems and a graphic organizer template to help your students get into the routine.  But you might want to hurry.  It won't be free forever.

And please let me know how you are using these handouts in your classroom!

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