Word Problems, dark and light green, pages of math work

How to Solve Math Word Problems

Do math word problems leave you and your children confused? Do they not make any sense to you? And, if you can’t figure out these problems, how can you teach your children how to solve word problems? Why do math books include word problems anyhow?

Using word problems in math books shows kids how math is relevant in the world outside of school. We encounter math problems every day, often without knowing it! So, learning to solve word problems will help with real-world applications.

But these word problems can be a bit of a mystery, right? So, let’s look at them that way. After all, who doesn’t like a good mystery? Let’s consider these word problems like mysteries and apply good detecting skills to solve the puzzles.

Guide to Solving Math Word Problems Dark green and light green with mockup of pages from the guide

One thing that will help with this process is marking up your problems – at least while you’re starting. If you can’t write in the book, I suggest you either copy the page to mark or write out the problem. Then, use some highlighters or colored pencils to mark all the different clues in your mystery-solving process.

What Is the Main Crime? (What question does the problem ask?)

If you are into mysteries, you know that a detective must first figure out the crime (or the mystery). What crime happened? What mystery needs a solution? So, with your word problems, the first step in solving the problem is to identify the question. What does the problem want you to find out? What’s the real question? Take your colored pencil or highlighter and either circle or highlight the question.

Scope out the Key Words (Words that clue you in on the operations to use)

Every word problem contains clues to help you decide what arithmetic operations you must use to solve the problem. And although the problem might not state outright whether you should add, subtract, multiply, or divide, the clues lie in words found in the problem. Here are examples of terms used for the different arithmetic operations.

  • Addition – Add, more than, greater than, in addition to, sum, increased, altogether, all together, all, all in all, more than, increased by, together, total, total number, both, combined
  • Subtraction – Minus, less than, take away, reduced by, lost, decreased by, fewer than, subtract, difference, the difference between, loss, change, how many left, how many more (or less), how much more (or less), remain, reduce
  • Multiplication – Times, times greater than, multiplied, product, multiply by, the product of, double, twice, triple, every, factor of,
  • Division – Divided by, separated into groups, into, quotient, each, per, average, divided equally, dividend, how many in each (or for each), separated
  • Equal – same, equals, the same as, equivalent, is equal to, is/are, was/were, will be, gives/yields, results, results in

Search your word problem for the clue words and then highlight them in a different color than what you used to mark out the question.

What Are the Clues? (What information is necessary to solve the problem?)

Every mystery includes clues for the detective to use to solve the problem. So do word problems. Search through your “mystery” for information clues: what information does the problem give that is necessary to answer the question? Then, highlight that information.

Eliminate the False Clues (What’s in the problem that does not contribute to the answer?)

Sometimes detectives get stumped because they follow false leads or questionable clues. A good investigator learns to eliminate false clues and focuses on the tips that will help to solve the problem. Your word problems might do the same thing. So, you need to search out any unnecessary information in your problem, any information that does not help you get the answer. Use your pencil to cross out any unneeded information. Don’t let those false clues lead you astray!

Diagram and Illustrate the Clues

When detectives find a particularly confusing problem, sometimes they will draw diagrams or illustrations to help them find their way through the maze of clues. You can do that, too. Draw a diagram or picture of your math problem. That might help you make sense of all your math clues.

Follow the Trail (What are the steps to solving the problem?)

A good investigator follows the clues wherever they may lead. So, now that you have gathered all your clues, eliminated any false clues, and drawn a diagram of the problem, it’s time to follow the trail of clues and solve the problem. Take all your clues, lay them out, and determine what steps you need to take and in what order to solve the problem.

Lay Out the Clues (Write out the information in equation format, number sentences)

Now, change those clues from words into mathematical equations and solve the mystery of your word problem! This process is where you make all those clues work in your favor to solve the problem.

Does Your Solution Fit the Crime? (Does the answer make sense? Did you answer the question you identified in the first step?)

Always compare your answer to the question asked in the problem. Does your answer make sense for the question asked? If not, you had better go back and examine all your clues again and see which clues or steps you missed! Remember this: sometimes, it takes several steps or several equations and operations to get to the final answer. Did you arrest the wrong person for the crime because you missed something? Oh, no! Be sure your answer makes sense before you make that mistake!

Guide to Solving Math Word Problems Dark green and light green with mockup of pages from the guide

Don’t forget to get your FREE Guide to Solving Math Word Problems!

Final Summary for Solving Math Word Problems

If your child (or you) has problems with word problems, turn them into a crime mystery, mark your leads, follow the clues, and solve the problem! Here’s a summary of the steps: 

  • What Is the Main Crime? (What question does the problem ask?)
  • Scope out the Key Words (Words that clue you in on the operations to use)
  • What Are the Clues? (What information is necessary to solve the problem?)
  • Eliminate the False Clues (What’s in the problem that does not contribute to the answer?)
  • Diagram and Illustrate the Clues
  • Lay Out the Clues (Write out the information in equation format, number sentences)
  • Does Your Solution Fit the Crime? (Does the answer make sense? Did you answer the question you identified in the first step?)

While this may seem like a lot of work for simple word problems, as you practice these steps, your child will probably soon be able to do them mentally and faster. He will learn to pick out the clues and keywords more quickly, and then word problems will no longer seem like such a challenge.

Carol Rhine Rhine Home School Services

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