How many times have you begun to teach the oh so dreaded word problems to your students, only to feel frustration? I bet you’ve even tried the ‘tricks’ of dissecting word problems, to end up with every number and all the keywords pulled out, but your kids are still confused. At the end of the lesson, you might have felt like your students still had no clue what they were doing.
It’s time to stop all the tricks and really teach students how to navigate word problems in a way that they comprehend. Let’s help them truly be able to apply that knowledge on their own! Sound too good to be true? It’s not! I’m going to teach you some really easy ways to help students understand word problems deeply and support those kiddos who are really struggling.
Word problems with no numbers? Sounds crazy but I’m telling you it’s the secret sauce. I went to an eye opening training a few years back that completely shifted my thinking on helping students understand math concepts deeply. If you haven’t heard of Graham Fletcher you should make a note to look him up immediately because he is DEFINITELY a math guru! One of the things he touched on was about numberless word problems. While I had heard of them, I had never really had much experience.
However, what he said that made me run out and try them was when he spoke about students’ reaction to word problems. We’ve all experienced the lack of excitement, and probably some anxiety or hesitation, when we tell our kids we’re about to learn how to solve word problems. But he said that when we take away the numbers, it allows students to focus on the problem itself and what it is asking.
Implementing numberless word problems is simply covering the numbers up, as pictured below, or adding blanks for them to create their own numbers. I will tell you, when we took those numbers away and added the hearts instead, the kids were immediately engaged and could not wait to learn more about why those hearts were there!
Now that you’ve got them engaged, let’s get to solving!
Strategies for Solving
When we start, we work together to determine the different types of word problems. This was a big learning lesson even for me. I didn’t realize how many different types there were! But this exercise can help students determine what the problem is really asking, depending on the information we already have. Check out the chart below that we use when we begin learning.
Once you have worked together to determine what the problem is asking, it’s time to SOLVE IT! This is where you can meet the individual needs of students, while providing voice and choice as they figure out the best way to solve for them. We learn about a bank of strategies to solve and allow the freedom and flexibility to use the strategy that works best for them. For example, maybe I like to use an open number line, while my friend prefers to draw a representation. No matter which strategy we choose, we can all get the answer in a way that’s best for us.
Here are some questions to think through as you all get ready to solve the problem together:
- What do you think this problem is asking from us?
- What do you already know?
- What are some words that will help us solve the problem?
- What are we missing? (if anything)
- What strategy are we going to use?
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A huge part of the problem solving process is making room for discussions. Having students turn and talk about the problem is how they can collaborate, learn from each other, MAKE MISTAKES, and essentially solve the problem. Making mistakes is a huge part of learning. We all do it and it can help us grow. Learn how to make that a healthy part of your math block HERE! Grab the engaging Word Problem Detective Pack HERE!
I know this is a lot and it can be overwhelming. But I’m here to help! I’ve created a how-to video to help YOU get started and of course help your littles master word problems. By subscribing, you’ll receive access to not only the how to video, but also this problem solving process to support your students.
Differentiate it for Students
We know that in EVERY classroom we have students with a WIDE variety of needs. While some students may be ready for multi-step word problems, others may need them to be as simple as possible. One of the most beautiful things about numberless word problems is that you can easily differentiate them to meet the needs of your students.
You can have students create their own problem entirely, fill in a problem with their own numbers, or even give them the answer and have them create the question. These are all easy ways to differentiate for needs and build flexibility in math with numbers.
Don’t be scared to expose them to different types of problems! Even though they may not be ready the moment you show it, doesn’t mean they won’t get there. This is one of the reasons I love using math workshop. While we may work on a different type of word problem altogether, you can easily differentiate to meet their needs during your guided group time. This is what math is about. It’s about helping students understand concepts deeply and trying out different things that work for them. Check out THESE differentiated word problems for your students!
Make it Engaging
Then I stated earlier about the heart shapes in the word problem and the instant engagement, I was not lying! Engaging your students is half the battle so we like to get creative.
For our word problem introduction, we wanted students to be excited to learn about problem solving so we made them detectives! You can see them all pictured below with their “Detective Goggles” on. We told them we had to investigate the problem and look for all the clues to help us along the way. This hooked them in! Since this lesson was on the fly – we know how those go, am I right? – we didn’t have the time to grab actual detective goggles. But now, THESE are the ones we love to use when we begin this unit! We also like to pull out magnifying glasses and highlighters as extra detective materials to use while they read through their word problems. Super simple yet marvelously engaging!!
What if They Aren’t Ready
How many times have you gotten to the standard of working with word problems, scared because you’re thinking: these kids can’t comprehend or do basic addition, how the heck are they going to tackle a word problem?! This is often an issue we come across in primary grades and of course can get worse throughout the years as students get older. I have three letters that can really support you and students with this – CRA.
The CRA Model is SO powerful in supporting students and helping them where they need it. It can help make word problems a little less daunting and give YOU more tools to support your little learners wherever that may be. Learn all about that amazing tool HERE!
Want to help your little learners totally rock word problems without the heavy burden of planning for the unit? No problem! I’ve got you covered with the Word Problem Detective Pack! From introductory lessons to differentiated word problems, your students will have a blast and of course learn all the importance of word problems while being detectives!
I really hope you enjoyed learning about numberless word problems and why they are so impactful for students! Don’t forget to subscribe to my email list! Not only will you get the most up to date tips, tricks, and classroom projects… and of course more fun FREEBIES including the Problem Solving FREEBIE! You will also have exclusive access to tons of digital how to videos! If you would like to learn about this and other things happening in my classroom follow me @sweetnsauerfirsties on Instagram.
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