Math Tips: Tackling Word Problems
Best for Grades 4 - 9
If there’s one thing students like (or can at least tolerate) about math, it’s that it involves very little reading. This might be why word problems are almost universally hated. They seem much harder than other math problems because they require an extra layer of understanding, which is also what makes them so important to master. Word problems are the answer to “when I am ever going to need this in real life?”
In theory, word problems should provide examples of real world applications of math concepts. Problems about compound and simple interest, percentages, and averages are especially relevant.
Many of the problems in textbooks, though, are strange or completely unrelatable to an eighth-grader. The common person probably doesn’t need or want to figure out when two trains will collide or how tall a lighthouse is based on the shadow it casts when the sun is at a 45-degree angle, but until math textbooks get a major overhaul, we have to work with what we have.
Beyond their (hopefully) practical applications, word problems also help to develop analytical skills.
With a consistent strategy, word problems really aren’t so bad. I like to think of them as puzzles—all I have to do is put everything in the right place.
How do I do a Word Problem? Here are some key steps to get you started. These won’t be comprehensive for every word problem, but they make a strong strategy framework.
1. Read the problem carefully. Seems obvious, but it’s important.
2. Underline (or circle, or highlight etc.) all the questions and all the numbers you are working with.
3. Put the question in your own words. Make sure you understand what it is asking. If you don’t, it’s okay to re-read. It may help to write a sentence with a blank for the answer you are trying to find.
4. Now, look for keywords. These are words that indicate operations (addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication) like “more than” (addition), “three times as many” (multiplication), or more obvious ones like “divided by.”
5. Put it together. Write down all the information you know in a neat list.
- What are you answering?
- What operations do you need to do it?
- What numbers are you working with?
6. Write an equation. Chances are you’ll have just enough information to write an equation with one variable. But don’t forget to consider things like conversions.
7. Solve the equation! And don’t forget to include units (feet, miles, square inches, apples etc.)
Let’s do an example.
Your brother traveled 117 miles in 2.25 hours to come home for school break. What’s the average speed that he was traveling?
What will my answer look like? My brother traveled ____ miles per hour on average.
What operation do I need? Well we have miles traveled in an hour. That’s like miles per hour, which means division.
? miles per hour
Equation: 117 ÷ 2.25 = X
Solve: X = 52 miles per hour