The Only Word Problem Strategy You Need

the only word problem strategy you need

If you’re looking for an easy word problem strategy to transform your 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade class, you are in the right place! Word problems can be such a struggle for students, especially English Learners, but they don’t have to be. 

Does this sound familiar?

You’re teaching word problems. You’ve barely finished reading the problem and you look out into your class. Half of them are completely checked out and waiting for you to to tell them what to do. The other half are jumping in, but they’re just randomly adding and multiplying the numbers without thinking about what they’re actually doing. 

You’re frustrated because you know that word problems are so important. You know that in every day life, almost all of the math we do is word problems. Nobody hands us a ready made division problem to do alone in a cubicle. 

You know that your students need a word problem strategy to help them to slow down and understand the problem. Some students, especially your language learners, need to slow down and make meaning of the words. Other students need to slow down and understand the meaning of the quantities in the word problem and how they relate. 

A lot of students need all of the above. 

So how can you help your students break down and understand word problems?

Transform your class with this word problem strategy

The one word problem strategy you need to try

My favorite strategy for teaching word problems is called Read 3 Ways. It’s fantastic because:

  • You can use it with any word problem 
  • You can use it with any grade level or skill level
  • It’s a fantastic support for language learners 
  • It provides extra challenge for your advanced students 
  • It slows students down so they can’t rush ahead and solve the problem incorrectly

How it works 

As the title implies, in the word problem strategy Read 3 Ways we read the problem, you guessed it, 3 times. 

In the first read you present the problem with the number omitted. If you’re using slides you can easily cover them with a rectangle. If you are projecting from a book on the document camera you can use a tiny scrap of paper or a little base-10 unit block to cover the numbers. 

The one word problem strategy that will transform your class

First Read

During the first read you pose this question: What is happening in the story?

Pretty simple right? 

But this simple question leads to some rich discussion. Let’s look at this example. 

Miguel read _____ pages. Clara read ____ more pages than Miguel. Maya read ___ pages less than Clara. 

What is this story about? Well, we have Miguel, Clara, and Maya. They’ve all read a certain number of pages. 

Did they read an equal amount? No. 

How do you know? Well, the words more and less let us know that they read different amounts.

Even though we don’t have the number of pages yet, can we tell who read the most pages? How? Who read the least? How do you know?

Do you see that even without numbers, we can really break this problem apart? 

Second Read

In the second read we read the problem again, except this time with the numbers included. We ask students, “what quantities are there and how do they relate?”

I tell students that 2 isn’t a quantity, but 2 dogs is. 30 isn’t a quantity, but 30 dollars is. Even 1st graders grasp this quickly. 

Let’s continue with our example. 

Miguel read 398 pages. Clara read 102 more pages than Miguel. Maya read 54 pages less than Clara. 

What quantities do we have? Some students might say 398, 102, and 54. Don’t accept that. Who has 398? 398 what? Remember, we’re building deep understanding here. 

Did you notice what’s missing from our word problem still? That’s right- there’s no question! Your speed racers aren’t able to steamroll ahead and instead are forced to slow down and reason through the words. 

But of course you need a question eventually which leads us to…

Transform your 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade math lessons using this word problem strategy

Third Read

In the third read, you read to generate a question. Ask your students, “what questions can be asked and answered by this question?” 

After giving your students some think time and possibly a pair share, make a list on chart paper or on the board of their questions. 

In our example of pages read, some questions might include:

  • How many pages did Clara read?
  • How many pages did Maya read?
  • How many pages did all 3 students read all together?

Time to solve

At last, it’s time to solve. Reveal the question and let your students get to work! 

Miguel read 398 pages. Clara read 102 more pages than Miguel. Maya read 54 pages less than Clara. How many pages did Miguel, Clara, and Maya read all together?

I’ve found that I’ve done so much foundational work getting to this point that every student gets to work right away. You read that right. Every. Single. Student.

What about your advanced students? Once they finish your question, ask them to tackle questions from the list generated in the 3rd read. They love to answer their classmates’ questions! 

The only word problem strategy you need

Your no prep solution

I love this word problem strategy because once you’re in the swing of the routine it’s very easy for you to facilitate and it really sets up your students for success. 

Although it can be done with any word problem, there is a little legwork in selecting a problem and presenting it to your students. 

That’s why I wrote out Read 3 Ways ready-to-present slides for you. My slides are absolutely zero prep. Just project and go! 

Word problem strategy slides. The text says "making sense of word problems. Add, subtract, multiply. Bundle"

I have 4 sets available, with 10 problems (44 slides) each. Your options are:

Whether or not you purchase my slides, let me know how this strategy worked for you by tagging me or DMing me on Instagram.

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