From Puzzlement to Proficiency: Equipping Students with Strategies to Solve Word Problems

In teaching math to third graders, one of the skills that we always found to be the most difficult was how to teach students to solve word problems. How do you teach an 8 or 9 year old how to carefully read a problem, pull out important information, choose a strategy, solve, check the solution, and explain how they solved it when they can barely sit still for more than 5 minutes!!!

And yet that is what we were being asked to do year after year with our students. After honestly feeling like we weren’t doing the best job in getting our students to persevere in solving problems, we decided that it was time to try something new. And if YOU persevere in reading this blog post, you will find a FREEBIE at the end!

solve word problems

We thought about what we wanted our students to be able to do when solving word problems. In addition to all of the skills mentioned above, we knew we also wanted them to be able to:

  • verbalize how they solved a problem to others
  • apply what they learned to new problems
  • and create similar problems of their own

From this desire, our Problem of the Week was born!

solve word problems

In the past we had given our students daily math and asked them to solve word problems. Then we would go over the strategies and the answer together as a class.

We decided that instead we wanted to have our students become more independent in problem solving and in order for that to happen we needed to give them strategies to solve word problems. They needed a method that they could follow over and over again until it became second nature.

We created this problem of the week so that each day the students would complete a different step in the problem solving process. 

Day 1: Solve the Problem Independently

Our students read over the problem independently and complete the CUBES strategy: Circle the key numbers, Underline the question and restate it, Box the clue words, Evaluate, and Solve. Then they do their best to solve the problem on their own.

We really try and encourage them to persevere without providing too much assistance. There are times, especially when you first start, that students will come up and say “I can’t do this” or “This is too hard” and you simply have to give them a smile and say “Do your best!”.

We realize that as teachers this can actually be quite challenging because we want to help our students, but we find that if we always guide them to the answer, they never feel confident enough to solve word problems on their own (especially when the BIG test comes along). 

solve word problems

Day 2: Compare Solutions With a Partner

Students work with a partner to compare answers and strategies for how they solved the problem. After discussing their solution, they decide whether or not they want to keep it the same or change their answer. If they decide to change it, they have to show how they solved it differently.

This step actually takes a lot of modeling and practice to get the quality work we want from our students. We find that a lot of times students will just mark that they don’t need to change anything even though they might have a totally different answer from their partner.

Our goal for this step is for students to make a detailed analysis of another student’s work, as well as check back over their own. We did see progress in this area as students became more comfortable with the routine and understood our expectations.

After this partner talk, we come together as a whole class and actually go over the solution to the problem. This is an opportunity to see the strategies that students are using, as well as get an idea of where the class is in their understanding of the targeted skill. 

solve word problems

Day 3: Explain the Solution in Writing

Day 3 is our explanation day, when the real fun begins! The students are asked to explain their problem solving process in writing. This is usually a very difficult task for students to complete, especially in the beginning of the year, so the written section is scaffolded with transition words to help students structure their responses.

After students finish their explanation, we gather as a class and have several students share, making sure to acknowledge what they did well, as well as provide feedback on what could make their response even better.

We also MODEL, MODEL, MODEL and when we don’t feel like we can do it anymore we MODEL again! Let us just warn you, at the beginning of the year these are AWFUL! But by the end of the year our students improve by leaps and bounds and can more clearly explain their problem solving process.

Day 4: Create a Similar Word Problem

This is usually our students’ favorite day of the whole process because they get to show their understanding of the problem in a different way and be creative. On this day the students are asked to create their own problem based on the original problem they solved.

In having them come up with their own problem using the same skill, it shows us that they have a deeper understanding of what they learned throughout the week. They also think it’s fun to change the characters or the situation.

For example, we shared our love of coffee with the students at the beginning of the year and from then on we saw the theme of coffee drinking teachers show up again and again in our students’ problems! 

Day 5: Switch and Solve

Students switch papers with a partner and solve each other’s problems. When they return the paper, they check to see if it was solved correctly. Also, sometimes this provides an opportunity to catch mistakes that were made in creating the problem.

solve word problems

Whew! Are you still with us? We hope so, because even though this it is quite a journey to get your students to become proficient as they solve word problems, it is well worth the time and effort you put in. The reality is that problem solving is a lifelong skill and these tools will help to set them up for success!

Here is what a few teachers have said about using our Problem of the Week in their classes:

“If you’re on the fence about this resource, GET IT!! It’s amazing and is really helping my students with their math skills!!”

“I love this! Weekly guided practice of problem solving for students to get ready to ace the state test!”

“Just the right amount of scaffolding to allow students to write their math processes down! Thank you!”

“This is a great way to go deeper into a word problem and encourage student discussion.”

So…ready to try it in your class? 

Click below to get a one week sample for FREE!

Also, check out the year long Problem of the Week Bundle for 33 weeks of problems in Volumes 1-4! And if you’re looking for a digital version, check out the one below. It includes interactive teaching videos as well!

solve word problems

We hope these steps will really help your students feel confident in knowing how to solve word problems!

If you’re looking for ways to build teamwork with your students, take a look at the fun math games in the blog post below.

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