I know one of the most dreaded concepts in math is solving word problems. I remember growing up and groaning any time a teacher would present word problems for us to solve. Solving word problems is hard! It requires students to be able to read, comprehend, analyze, form strategies and solve. There’s a lot going on in a young person’s mind in order to work through this process. That’s why I think it is important to directly teach and practice Math Problem Solving Strategies throughout the school year.
I know in my classroom we spend a lot of time talking about the steps mathematicians take to solve problems. We spend time practicing and understanding how to read through a problem. We analyze what the important parts are and try to understand the situation being described. I teach my students that sometimes making a mental movie or actually drawing a picture to depict what the problem is saying can help you to analyze the situation.
Once we understand the words then it is time to develop a strategy and plan for solving. Students learn a wide range of strategies from making a model to writing a number sentence. Depending on student needs the method for solving might look different. I always encourage my students to use strategies that work best for them.
Sometimes students and teachers believe having an “answer” is the ultimate goal. So they stop the problem solving process at this point! However, I always talk to my students about the concept of being precise. I usually bring up real world situations of what could go wrong if a mathematician makes a small error just because they don’t take the time to justify and evaluate their work. It is important once students have worked through their strategy and solved that they take the time to go back and justify what they did. Students need to think, “How did I know to _____?” or “How can I explain my thinking to someone else?” In the process of doing this, students might discover that they had a misconception about the problem or they might be able to help someone that didn’t understand. Students evaluate their answers to make sure it makes sense and it fits the question being asked of them.
Solving word problems can be tricky! I have found that it is really beneficial to provide students ample time to practice problem solving and model the process of problem solving. Also, students need to have a solid understanding of many ways to solve problems. They need to know strategies so they can then have multiple entry points to begin solving a problem. In my classroom I have a display of my Math Problem Solving Strategies. We reference this poster all the time! The students also have a copy in their math journal to use when working independently. It is a great resource which breaks down the steps to solving word problems.