Word problems can be a tricky subject to teach. Check out different ways of how to teach word problems to the students you serve.

Word problems can be tricky, especially for students who struggle with reading or for whom English is not their primary language. Being able to teach these students to understand, is an important skill that our students in the elementary education program learn.

This semester, students in our Number Sense course spent time learning strategies for teaching students how to solve word problems. Each group was given a different type of addition or subtraction word problem based on the same fact family, although they weren’t told this initially. The students’ names were written into the problems to make them more engaged and relevant to the class.

Groups were then given resources with a few common representations for addition and subtraction problems. Additionally, they had examples of each of the types of addition and subtraction word problems with unknowns in any of the places. 

Each group worked together to identify the type and subtype. Then they would create a visual representation of the problem, write a number sentence, and identify wording that might be tricky for early elementary students. Here are the main concepts they learned during the activity.

Use visuals

Using pictures and other visuals helps young students to see how many of something there are, without counting. For example, drawing out five dots plus four dots is a lot easier to understand for younger students. This process is called subitizing. Defined by My Learning Springboard, subitizing is “the ability to instantly recognize the number of objects without actually counting them.”

Another visual method is called a tape diagram. A tape diagram is good to use when numbers in the problem get too large to draw each item. The tape diagram helps students make sense of the quantities in the problem and write a number sentence to model the problem. You could also use plastic bear counters, which are often part of math manipulatives in kindergarten and first grade, or stickers. We don’t recommend using food as manipulatives because so many children have food allergies. 

Acting it out

Having students “act out” the word problem is another visual way to picture the problem in the real world. This would be especially helpful to struggling readers and English language learners.

Three-reads strategy

The three-reads strategy is another way to help students comprehend the problem. 

  1. The teacher first reads the problem without the numbers and may have the students act out or talk with a partner about what is happening in the story. 
  2. Next, the class reads the problem together with the numbers, and the teacher models how to underline the important quantities in the problem. 
  3. Finally, the class reads the problem again and the students turn and talk about what question they are trying to solve.

This could be a way to introduce a new type of problem to your students or may be especially helpful when working with a group of struggling readers or English language learners. 

We’re proud of the great conversations students had as they considered strategies they could use to help early elementary students decipher addition and subtraction word problems.

If you’re interested in becoming a teacher, you can learn more here.