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How to Teach Problem Solving Without Using Keywords

Teaching students how to solve word problems can be one of the most difficult skills a math teacher has to teach. That’s putting it mildly! 

Before I moved into my current position as a Math Interventionist, I taught a group of fifth graders that made me feel like I was the reading and math teacher. Their reading comprehension levels were so low that I couldn’t introduce my problem solving strategy until December! It was tragic.

When I would ask the students what word tells you which operation to use some would respond with how many. As I stared into space, I could feel my anxiety taking over my body.

In the midst of my mild anxiety attack, I started devising a strategy, so that I could teach them how to solve problems without using keywords.

Reading is Thinking

The problem solving strategy I use in my classroom is Read, Draw, Write. In the Read part of the problem solving strategy, I connect reading in math to reading in the English Language Arts class. This helps the students to connect and apply reading skills like context clues, drawing conclusions, and making inferences in a math classroom.

I’ve noticed that many secondary math teachers often focus on teaching math concepts and not the thinking that needs to take place in order to understand more complex math concepts.

Little do they know those critical thinking skills they want the students to use when solving equations, or applying formulas to a figure in Geometry are taught in the reading classroom.

Connect the Math with the Text

I’ve been teaching math for fifteen years and no matter what grade level I teach the students always struggle with connecting the math to the reading.

This means that they don’t know how to identify words from the problem that tells them which operation to use. 

Sometimes this can be attributed to low reading comprehension but most often it’s due to them not having a conceptual understanding of the four operations. To give my students a better conceptual understanding I reteach all of the operations conceptually. It’s not an in depth reteach but it clears up most of the misconceptions about subtraction and division. Which are almost always an issue. Helping them to understand the inverse operation of four operations has been my go to instructional strategy even though I’m teaching ninth graders.

If you keep the focus on the functions of the four operations like grouping, taking a part, and creating equal groups then the urge to attach an operation to a word will disappear.

Bring it Together

The last but most important part of teaching students to problem solve without using keywords is creating opportunities for discussion. Students can’t master what they can’t articulate. 

I know a lot of administrators are infatuated with math workstations. This can put teachers in a situation where they have to choose to do what’s right for students or be in compliance. If I were to be brutally honest math workstations are a hindrance to problem solving because discussions help students deepen their understanding of complex math concepts.

Three of my favorite ways I conduct math discussions are:

  1. Chalk Talk
  2. FlipGrid
  3. Rally Coach

I literally get chills when my students are talking about math using the language of the discipline.

Problem solving is the foundation of mathematics. We teach the four operations and other concepts so that students can problem solve. 

If you’re teaching your students to rely on keywords to solve word problems then your students will never really understand how to connect the reading with the math then pull it all together so that it makes sense. They will become math students who view problem solving as words without connection.

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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