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Strategies for Math Word Problems

Math word problems are among the most challenging activities for children and adults. Being able to do them is an important skill to have because we often have to figure out math-related problems in everyday life. Word problems involve many skills, concepts and procedures. In order to manage all of these demands, child should use systematic strategies that will aid in the successful completion of the problem.  The strategies should include consideration of the basic skills needed to solve the problem, the procedures required, and the methods needed for success. Here are some basic strategies for math word problems:

  1. Read the problem slowly and carefully
  2. Cross out information that is not relevant
  3. Draw a diagram of the problem or visualize it
  4. State the facts and the problem in your own words
  5. Estimate what the answer should be
  6. Calculate the answer and check against the estimate
  7. Check your work
  8. Remember you have to know the basic math facts to get the correct answer
  9. Be persistent
  10. Be sure you read the problem correctly.

Students should be taught how to classify arithmetic word problems into four types: Change, Combine, Compare and Equalize.

  1. Change: These problems involve values that are changed as the result of some action by the student. For example, Jack had two pencils. Mary gave him three more. How many pencils does Jack have now? Students should be be taught to think about how to represent this type of problem. For example, the student can visualize Mary handing Jack her three pencils to put with his two.  
  2. Combine: Word problems of this type require the child to use a more general view of the mathematical situation by computing a total based on a new way of organizing problem. Jack has two pencils. Mary has three pencils. How many pencils do they have altogether? By asking this question, a new concept of the two children as a group is required. 
  3. Compare: In these problems, the quantity of the sets does not change, but the operations demand that a relative relationship be determined. For example, Jack has two pencils. Mary has three pencils. How many more pencils does Mary have than Jack? Children should be taught to recognize the greater than/less than nature of this type of problem and that it will typically involve subtraction. 
  4. Equalize: These problems require that the values in the problem be equalized. For example, Jack has two pencils. Mary has three pencils. How many more pencils does Jack need in order to have as many as Mary? Children should be taught to recognize equalize problems and expect that it will likely involve both subtraction and addition.   
Who Should Learn a Plan for Word Problems? 
All students are likely to find using this plan helpful for doing word problems. Math word problems involve all the PASS processes. Successive processing is involved when a child has to remember the ordering of relevant information. Attention is involved when the child must separate relevant from irrelevant details in the word problems. Simultaneous processing is very important so the child can see how the information in the problem is related. However, students who score low in planning (Naglieri, 1999) are likely to benefit from using this plan as a structure to help them work through math word problems. 
* From Helping Children Learn: Intervention Handouts for Use in School and at Home by Jack A. Naglieri, Ph.D., and Eric B. Pickering, Ph.D.

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