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Word Problems! How to Help Students to Solve Them

Word problems are the bane of every teacher’s existence.  But word problems shouldn’t be! Why? Because life is a word problem.  We use math every day in our lives to solve problems.  Math is about solving problems – problems that exist in real life.  Math is everywhere.  So word problems are not going to go away.  But is there a way to help students better understand word problems so they can make sense of them to solve them? The answer is YES!

Teach the Three Reads routine to students to solve word problems

Have you heard of the Three Reads protocol? If you haven’t, then keep reading because I’m going to explain what it is so you can use it in your classroom to help your students solve word problems! The main reason students struggle with word problems is that they fail to make sense of the problem or fail to persevere in trying to solve the problem.  That ladies and gentlemen is the first listed Standard for Mathematical Practice (SMP 1):  Make sense and persevere!

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Here’s a Great Strategy for Solving Word Problems

So your students give up before even trying. They lack perseverance.  They sit there clueless with no idea what to do. Or they just misinterpret the problem altogether and go down the wrong solution path.  Then the Three Reads protocol is an instructional routine you need to include in your math instruction.

No, it doesn’t involve circling key words or memorizing some mnemonic or chanting for the Math Gods to appear and grant us word problem magic.  Instead, it involves teaching students how to reason through a problem.

The struggle to solve word problems is real among students.

As the name implies, you read the word problems three times, but each time it’s read with a different purpose.  Students need to understand that reading word problems is different than reading a story or narrative.

How is it different? Rather than begin with the main idea or the problem as a fictional story would, math story problems begin with lots of details which a reader has to put aside until they find the question, which is usually presented last. Then the reader has to go back and relate the question to all those details to figure out which ones can be used. It’s upside down and backward which is why students get frustrated and anxious about word problems.

Comparison of word problems and narrative structures.

In the end, you are teaching kids how to reason using a routine which helps them to make sense of word problems.

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Not Just a Fad to Solve Word Problems

No, it’s not just another fad that is trending at the moment. Instead, it’s based on research.  Don’t take my word on it, check out this paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Education:  Principles for the Design of Mathematics Curricula:  Promoting Language and Content Development.

It has been adopted as a key strategy that’s integrated into several district math programs, notably the San Francisco Unified School District which has adopted Three Reads as a signature strategy.

Routines for Reasoning book

But my go-to resource for learning about this instructional routine is fosteringmathpractices.com by Amy Lucenta and Grace Kelemanik who also wrote the book Routines for Reasoning.  By providing these links and resources, I want you to see that this is a proven, researched-based, and practical strategy that helps all types of learners, but especially English Language Learners (ELLs)  and Students with Disabilities (SWDs).

The Three Reads Protocol for Solving Word Problems

The first thing to know is that there are different protocols put out by different practitioners or developers of this instructional routine. The one that I follow is the one I learned from Routines for Reasoning.  It is neither “correct” nor “better” than the other protocols.  All the protocols work.

What do you need to get started? You need a good word problem.  A problem that is relatable to your students but will also provide some productive struggle.  If you’re familiar with Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels, try to find one that is DOK 2 or above.  For my example, I chose a problem directly out of the Houghton Mifflin Go Math 2nd grade math book.

Word problems should be challenging enough to provide productive struggle.

You can put the word problems for this routine into a PowerPoint or Google Slides.  You can also project it from a typed copy using a document camera.  But my preferred method is to have it on a chart paper so it’s easy to reference and annotate.  I also write the three questions I will ask for each read on a separate chart paper so I can record student thinking. Lastly, you’ll need visuals for each read.  I made my own based on the Three Reads protocol by Amy Lucenta.

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Three Reads Protocol Posters for FREE!

Posters I made to use to solve word problems using the Three Reads routine

The First Read

On the first read, students don’t actually read the problem. The problem is read aloud by the teacher.  Why? Because you want the students to focus on one thing: What is this story or word problem about?  This is an important step because this is where you can clear up misunderstandings and clarify or define unknown words in word problems.  This is especially critical for ELLs who might misunderstand the context of the problem because of multiple meaning words or unknown vocabulary.

First read in solving word problems is to just state what the story is about.

After you’ve read the problem and ask what is the story or word problem about, you’ll have the students think to themselves first. Give them a minute or two to ponder the question: What is the story problem about?  Then have them pair-share to discuss what the story problem is about.  Finally, ask for volunteers to share.

You want to record what students say.  By listening and recording, you can clear up misunderstandings about context. Also, I try to get students to be more specific.  If the story is about sports, I help to clarify by asking which sports? The more specific and detailed, the clearer the context becomes especially when students restate it in their own words.

The Second Read

Now it is time for the students to actually see and read the problem.  You can give each student their own copy or just project it with a document camera.  I prefer to have it on a chart paper.  The teacher and students read it together.  This time, the focus is different.  We are reading to find out What is the question? What are we trying to solve or discover?

The chart I prepare to solve word problems using the Three Reads routine

Some variations of the Three Reads protocol do not include the actual question but rather solicit students to construct questions that could be asked about the context of the story problem.  I prefer to leave the question.  Why? Because most students can find the question in the story problem since it usually is included at the end.

Again, the procedure is the same. Use the prompt, What is the question? What are we trying to solve? Have students ponder individually for a few minutes.  Then have them pair-share what they believe the question is. Together the pair should try to restate the question in their own words.  As students pair-share, the teacher should be circulating prompting students who are stuck or not participating.

Second read of word problems involves understanding what you are asked to find or solve.

Finally, have volunteers share what they think the question is or what are we being asked to find.  Capture the student thinking on a chart so you can arrive at a consensus about the question.  This part always seemed the most difficult because it was a challenge to sometimes restate the question in your own words. But one clever student used a NOT statement (How many students were NOT playing soccer or basketball?).

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The Third Read

On the third and final read, students and teacher read the story problem again.  This time the focus is on capturing or identifying quantities.  What is a quantity? It’s anything that can be counted or measured.  Sometimes quantities are hidden or are words instead of numbers (e.g., the rest, the remaining, the others, etc.).

The Third Read of the word problems involves finding the important information.

After you’ve read it together, have individual students ponder: What is the important information? What quantities are in the story problem?  Once again, have students pair-share to agree on what is the important information that relates to answering the question from the second read.  Finally, have volunteers share the quantities found and record these as student thinking.  If not all the quantities are discovered by the students, you might need to prompt and remind them that not all quantities are numbers but can also be words or can be hidden.

Sometimes a quantity is unknown because it is the answer needed to solve the problem!  And that’s a great discovery for students to make.

Do the Students then Solve the Word Problems?

It depends.   You can stop after the third read.  Or you can have the students solve the problem either individually or in pairs.  I choose to have the students solve the problem to help them see how this strategy helped them make sense of a difficult problem.  I feel it’s important that students experience that feeling of accomplishment in knowing that the extra effort and reasoning put into solving a word problem paid off!

The problem I had chosen was intended to be a 2 step problem, however, students found multiple solution paths that did NOT require both addition and subtraction.  You can see below examples of how students found the solution.

Students can solve word problems in many different ways.

You’re probably wondering how long this process takes. The first time you present the routine to your students, they are just learning the process so plan on an entire math period.  Once they’ve learned the routine, it should not take more than 15 – 20 minutes each successive time you do it.

Reflecting on the Process of Solving Word Problems

Whether you have the students attempt the solution or not, you do want them to reflect on the process.  For closure, have students think to themselves first what they learned about reading or solving word problems.  Then have them pair-share and finally share out as a class.  You want students to see the value in taking a determined and structured approach to problem-solving.

As a teacher, when I reflect back on the process I see the value in making this routine a common practice during the school year.  Why? Have you ever heard of ganbari? It’s Japanese for “exerting tenacious effort.”

Effort and grit is what is needed to build perseverance to solve word problems.

You see, one reason Japanese students do so well in math is that when the going gets tough, they get tougher (you know, grit!). The teacher and students give the student encouragement to try harder.  They truly believe that success is not about competence or abilities but about effort and hard work.

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How Often Should I do this Routine with my Students?

As a math coach, I recommend to teachers to include at least one instructional routine daily.  By instructional routine I mean incorporating a Number Talk, a Three Reads or a Clothesline Math session. There are other instructional routines, but these three routines have a high impact on developing student perseverance, grit, and problem-solving.  My recommendation is to vary the routine during the week:  2 Number Talks, 2 Three Reads, and one Clothesline Math. But that is flexible because you can adjust it to fit your math lessons or units.

Daily instructional routines such as number talks, three reads or clothesline math.

The point of instructional routines is to:

  • develop mathematical reasoning
  • enhance communication skills
  • foster perseverance
  • expose students to other’s thinking
  • be flexible with numbers and strategies
  • learn new strategies and approaches
  • think like a mathematician!

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Three Reads routine FREE posters

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Are you using the Three Reads Instructional Routine with your students? You should be! It\\\'s a powerful strategy to teach students to reason through a math word problem.  The protocol provides a structure to help students persevere to a solution.  Read more about it on my blog post! #twoboysandadad #commoncoremath #mathroutine #mathstrategy #mathwordproblems
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Two Boys and a Dad
Two Boys and a Dad

I’m a single dad raising two boys, 15 and 12. I’m also a veteran teacher of over 30 years who has taught first, second and third grades. I’m also a trained literacy coach, served as a mentor teacher and have a Bilingual Specialist Credential. I’m currently serving as a District Math Coach.

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