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Secrets to Word Problems

Update on August 3, 2022

For a lot of students, math can seem difficult, but even more so when the problem is laid out as a word problem.

Unlike other subjects like English or History, there is not going to be a single answer that you can memorize.

With math, you must use your own critical thinking skills and the tools at your disposal to solve a unique problem.

But how do we know which tools to use?

Let’s go through our math toolbox and find out!

Secrets to Learning Math: Table of Content

Understand the problem

Read the Question Thoroughly, and then Read the Question Again!

Figure Out Which Information is Important, and Which Isn’t

Turn Word Problems Into Equations

Solve the Problem

Visualization

Guess, But Be Sure to Check

Finding Patterns

Start at the End

Putting the Strategies to Work

Show Your Work

Check Your Work

Verify Your Solution

Compare Answers

Make Sure Your Solution Fits

Correct Your Work

Understand the Problem

Like with any problem, to solve it we must first understand what our goal is.

Math is no different!

When tackling a math problem, the first thing we need to figure out is what the question is asking us.

This isn’t always as obvious as it may seem, which is why you should always:

Read the Question Thoroughly, and then Read It Again!

Reading lengthy word problems can sometimes be a chore and we have the habit to just read them as quickly as we can.

The problem with this is that by the time we reach the end of the problem, we realize we really don’t remember what we just read!

Another mistake is that we just look at the problem and try to guess what information is going to be important and try and just use that.

Generally, guessing in math is never going to work out well.

If you make it to the end of the problem and still aren’t sure what the question is asking that’s okay!

Go back and read it again, but this time read it a little slower and use your pencil or highlighter to circle the information that you think is important.

If you still can’t figure it out it’s okay to ask for help!

Figure Out Which Information is Important, and Which Isn't

Reading word problems can seem especially tough because they contain a lot of information in them.

It may seem like they are doing this to trick you, but rest assured they aren’t!

In real life, problems will never be laid out in a simple way, and it is up to you to decide which information is important for finding the solution!

Once you have read the problem thoroughly and have determined what it is wanting you to do, go back through the problem and identify what information is going to help you.

If this seems a little tricky, try swapping out little pieces of the problem and see if it would change the solution.

For example:

Mr. Smith went to the store to buy oranges. They cost $1 each. How many oranges could Mr. Smith buy if he had $5?

As we go back and sort through the information, we can ask ourselves, “Would the problem change if it was Mrs. Johnson buying oranges?”

If the answer is no, then we know that that piece of information doesn’t need to be our focus!

Turn Word Problems into Equations

Once we have found all the important information in the word problem, we need to find a way to simplify it.

Using the example above, we can turn the important information into an easy to understand equation.

The amount of money available, divided by the cost of each item, equals the solution!

Solve The Problem

If you aren’t having a lot of success with math it is easy to decide that you aren’t very good at it and give up.

One great thing about math is that there is always more than one way to solve the problem, and there are many great strategies available.

Visualization

Sometimes it is easier to understand a problem if we can visualize a picture of it.

For example, imagine, or even draw out, a picture of 5 oranges laid out at a grocery store, and a man holding 5 1-dollar bills in his hand.

Guess, But Be Sure to Check

If you are absolutely stuck, you can try and guess the answer, but you can’t stop there.

Once you make your guess you need to be sure to check and make sure your answer fits and makes sense.

If your guess doesn’t work, then adjust it as needed.

Finding Patterns

This strategy largely comes with experience, but over time you will start to see that a lot of the problems not only look the same but can be solved the same.

Finding familiar information can help you identify the steps needed to solve the problem and you can use your knowledge of similar problems to help.

Start at the End

In some problems we have unknown numbers, but we do have the solution. In these instances, we can use the solution to find the missing number.

If we know Mr. Smith bought 5 oranges, and we know they were $1 each, we can figure out how much money he spent by working backwards.

Putting the Strategies to Work

We have already read and reread the problem, figured out the strategy we were going to use to solve it, now it is time to bring it all together and start working out the solution.

As straight forward as this sounds, there are things you can do make sure you work through the problem efficiently and effectively.

Show Your Work

Showing your work can’t be stressed enough.

Not only does writing down the steps you are taking keep your thoughts organized, but it also helps you check for mistakes, and go back and figure out where you went wrong.

Check Your Work

As you move through your problem, stop to check at every step and make sure your answer is still making sense.

This can help you catch mistakes early and allow you to fix them before doing a lot of extra work for nothing!

Verify Your Solution

We solved the problem!

We read and reread, we chose a strategy, we showed our work, and now we have the solution!

We aren’t quite done yet though.

It is important to always check and make sure the solution you have is the right one.

Compare Answers

If possible, compare answers with a partner.

If the two answers didn’t match, then go back and see why they are different.

Make Sure Your Solution Fits

This is a chance to go back and make sure your answer makes sense.

Simply reread the problem but insert your answer and see if it fits.

Correct Your Work

If you are checking your work and find that you did make a mistake that’s okay!

Remember when I said, “Showing your work is important?”

It allows you to go back and review where you went wrong.

If you still can’t figure it out, it lets you ask for help and the person helping you is able to understand how you found your answer!