I’m not a big fan of the term “word problems”. To start with, calling it a problem already makes it seem hard, doesn’t it?

I’ve talked with countless teachers who have shared their students’ struggles when it comes to tackling word problems. And over the years, I’ve learned it typically boils down to one thing: students don’t understand what they’re being asked to do.

This often leads teachers to question their practice:

- Why are word problems so hard?
- Are word problems necessary?
- What are the benefits of solving word problems?

It’s frustrating when you’ve taught all the strategies and practiced repeatedly. And your kids still don’t know what to do. They don’t understand what the problem is asking (if they even read it) and either get frustrated and give up. Or pluck out the numbers and choose a random operation.

There’s almost always one reason this happens – reading comprehension. This brings me to why I don’t like to call them word problems. It feels abstract. Really, they’re stories with numbers in them. Or as I like to say – number stories.

A couple of methods, in particular, are problematic. If students have been taught to approach numbers stories as a series of steps to solve or to pull out key words, we’re actually hindering their comprehension.

“What research has found is that if we ask students to only rely on knowing that certain key words signal specific operations, we can actually lead them away from trying to understand the problems. They will tend to look only for those words and whatever numbers are in the problem, even if they are not relevant to the answer*.” Reading Rockets. (n.d.). Word problems in mathematics: Reading and understanding written math problems.

When we treat word problems as stories, they become more digestible. And students can start to make sense of them. Like any other story, they have:

- Characters
- Action
- Setting
- Main idea
- Beginning, middle, and end

Thinking in this way helps us reframe our approach to helping students work through number stories.

Students begin working with number stories as early as kindergarten. I’ve heard teachers (and parents) wonder if it’s even important to teach word problems. You might be tempted to skip them entirely. Or to read them aloud to your class and explain what the problem is asking. That way they can “focus on the math”.

But number stories ARE the math.

So, yes, word problems are necessary. They provide the context students need to make sense of abstract ideas.

“Word problems are a powerful tool for teaching math concepts to students. They offer a practical and relatable approach to problem-solving, enabling students to understand the relevance of math in real-life situations. Through word problems, students learn to apply mathematical principles and logical reasoning to solve complex problems.” Edutopia. (2023). Strategy for Teaching Math Word Problems

So we know what students stand to lose if we don’t teach number stories. But what do they stand to gain?

Learning how to successfully solve word problems provides skills not only necessary for math but all subject areas and life in general. They “enhance critical thinking, analytical skills, and decision-making abilities.” Edutopia. (2023). Strategy for Teaching Math Word Problems

“In spite of what some kids may initially believe, we don’t learn math in order to get a good grade on a test; we learn math to better navigate the world… word problems challenge students to understand each new concept in relation to other math skills they’ve gained over the years.” Mathnasium. (2019, September 23). The Benefits of Word Problems. Mathnasium Blog.

Besides critical thinking, other benefits include developing logic and creativity. I love the way this Mathnasium article phrases it as students looking “into their mental toolbox.”

If you’re not already familiar with the Standards for Mathematical Practice, standard 2 requires that students reason abstractly and quantitatively. These standards were developed based on decades of research about the skills students need to be mathematically proficient.

I found this fantastic K-5 breakdown by grade level illustrating what types of problems lend themselves to this practice standard.

When working with number stories, students begin to hone these reasoning skills. To make sense of quantities, they have to contextualize (give meaning to symbols) and decontextualize (represent a situation symbolically). Word problems are one vehicle to provide the context students need to engage in this practice.

While they may be challenging for students and teachers alike, number stories help students develop:

- Critical thinking skills
- Analytical skills
- Comprehension
- Decision-making abilities
- Logic
- Creativity
- Reasoning

And I, for one, can’t imagine an argument in which these aren’t necessary skills for success in mathematics and life.

If you agree but struggle with teaching word problems, I’d love for you to sign up for my weekly email. It includes actionable tips and examples. And I often give away free resources.

Resources included above:

Reading Rockets. (n.d.). Word problems in mathematics: Reading and understanding written math problems. Reading Rockets*. https://www.readingrockets.org/topics/content-area-literacy/articles/reading-and-understanding-written-math-problems#:~:text=Word%20problems%20in%20mathematics%20often,and%20solve%20a%20numerical%20equation

Edutopia. (2023). Strategy for Teaching Math Word Problems. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/strategy-teaching-math-word-problems/#:~:text=Through%20word%20problems%2C%20students%20learn,%2C%20and%20decision%2Dmaking%20abilities

Mathnasium. (2019, September 23). The Benefits of Word Problems. Mathnasium Blog. https://www.mathnasium.com/ca/blog/20190923-the-benefits-of-word-problems

*I included this article because it brought up great points about why key words are problematic. At the end of the article, it does include a chart with key word terminology. I strongly discourage their use and encourage you to read my previous blog linked in the section about CUBES and key words hindering mathematics.