Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Math Word Problem Strategies

If you don't already know, I started my own tutoring business this year when I realized I wasn't going to get to teach every day. (Substituting is a wonderful opportunity and allows me to glean so many ideas, but I simply cannot expect to get a sub job every day!) About 80% of my students receive my tutoring services in math.

I saw this phenomenon when I was student teaching in 2nd grade, but it has really stuck out as I have tutored my students in math this year: word problems are a stumbling block for many, many students. There is just something about combining letters with what kids have traditionally known as an "all-number subject" that freaks them out (algebra, anyone?).

I have seen a few school districts use a couple of techniques in particular to help students combat this word-problem fear.

The first is called the C.U.B.E. method:

Circle the numbers.
Underline important words.
Box the question.
Eliminate unnecessary information.

Using C.U.B.E. in the classroom helps students focus on the important information and get to the nitty-gritty of what the word problem is actually asking them to do. I have seen several different age groups of elementary students use this method with great success. As students get older, it becomes unnecessary for them to do each of these steps. But if your older students have never been exposed to this method, I would suggest showing it to them, as well! One of my close friends teaches secondary math, and she introduced this concept to her freshmen and sophomores this year! So this isn't something that just works for elementary kids.

Let me give you an example of how this works. Since I don't have the ability to circle things on a Blogger post, I'll bold them. Since I also lack the ability to box things in a Blogger post, I'll italicize them. Here's the sample word problem:

Mr. Johnson's class has 21 students. If the seven of his students are absent due to heavy rainfall on a particular day, how many students does he have in his class on that day?

(I borrowed this practice word problem from Tips 4 TAKS.)  Anyway, this is how it would look if a student applied the C.U.B.E. strategy to this problem:

Mr. Johnson's class has 21 students. If the seven of his students are absent due to heavy rainfall on a particular day, how many students does he have left in his class on that day?
I circled (bolded) the numbers 21 and 7.

I underlined the word "left" because it helps us understand what type of problem we'll be doing. I realize you could classify other words in this word problem as "important," but the students I know only underline the important math words. They might also underline words such as remain, divide, in all, altogether, take away, etc. These are the "telling words" that tell students what kind of action they should perform to those numbers. Lots of teachers post these "key math words" on giant keys (aren't we clever?) on a math bulletin board somewhere in the room.

I boxed (italicized) the question so that we could focus on what answer we're supposed to find.

I crossed out unnecessary information about the teacher's name and why the students were absent so that we could concentrate more easily on important info.

You could do this to any word problem!


Another, similar strategy is called U.P.S. Check:

Understand the problem.
Plan how to solve the problem.
Solve the problem.
Check your answer.

The most common way I've seen students use this method is to divide their paper into 4 parts. In box #1, students will write "U," in box number #2, students will write "P," and continue until they've labeled all boxes. Then, students go back to each box and perform the task. Let's use the same word problem from above as an example:

Mr. Johnson's class has 21 students. If the seven of his students are absent due to heavy rainfall on a particular day, how many students does he have in his class on that day?

So this is {roughly} what the students' papers should look like if they choose to use the U.P.S. Check method to solve this problem:

The C.U.B.E. method and the U.P.S. Check method are both great strategies for helping students solve word problems! ...And, when I think about it, I think U.P.S. Check could be used with all problem -- not just word problems!


I decided to create some freebies for you! I created 9 different colored poster sets: blue, green, lime, orange, pink, purple, red, turquoise, and yellow. For each color, I created 3 items: a U.P.S. Check poster, a C.U.B.E. poster, and a page that contains both posters in a smaller size -- suitable for printing one for each student and allowing them to place the page in the front of their binders or math folders. Each document can be printed on an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper.

Here's a preview:

Please excuse the watermark!

The color name pertains to the color of border each poster has. All borders have polka dots. Click the color name below to be taken to my Teacher's Pay Teachers shop to download the posters for free!


1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. I've been working on word problems all year and I know that there are great strategies out their. This was my second stop on my search for ideas. Loving it. Thank you


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