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Word problems for younger elementary grades can be challenging if kids don't know how to break them apart. There is a meme about word problems that reads, 'If you have 4 pencils and I have 7 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof? Purple because aliens don't wear hats.' This illustrates the probable frustration with word problems so well! We want our young students to have exposure to working word problems, but need to remember that first, second and some younger third graders are still developing their reading and comprehension skills in addition to processing mathematical operations. If they are given the tools to break these word problems apart it lessens the frustration.
So where do we start?
First have your student read the word problem independently the best he or she can. Help with any tricky words then help them re-read it. Next give your students key words to look for. I have anchor charts hanging up for my students to refer to. Let students know that words such as and, more, altogether and sum mean to add and difference, take away, subtract and less than mean to subtract. My students also get into multiplication and division problems so I have anchor charts with key words for those operations as well. I like to have my students circle those key words in the word problems and put the operation sign above the key word or words.
Then I have my kids search for who or what the word problem is talking about. Is it counting fish? Is it talking about groups of kids? When they have determined who or what the problem is talking about I have the kids underline those words and look for values that go along with them. I instruct them to write the values above the words.
Finally I have my students look for what the problem is asking for in a final answer. Does the problem want them to find out how many more dogs than cats there are? How many frogs were there altogether? How many lessons in one week? Once they have determined this then they have a self-check for the operation and also the label that goes with the answer. Most students have figured out by this point what is needed in order to solve the problem. I also encourage the kids to illustrate the word problem, being careful that they don't get too wrapped up in drawing details on illustrations so as not to distract from the initial task. Diagrams are always a great tool to use for younger students since most of them are such visual learners.
Once the kids have been given the tools needed to solve word problems they usually will tackle them without much complaint. Word problems give kids the daily application they need to solve real-life situations. With more exposure to word problems, students will be able to solve them without much complaint.
How do you help your students decipher word problems?