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Strategies to making Word Problems less of a Problem

Sep 19, 2017

By: Daniel Daileg Mathnasium Instructor

Word problems: a student’s worst nightmare. For a math student, there is nothing else more daunting than trying to figure out how to solve a word problem. Even the most simple of word problems can provide a fair bit of difficulty to even the most seasoned of mathematicians. So why are word problems so hard? Are they not straight forward? Are there too many words? Do they confuse students into believing that they are in English class rather than math class?

The problem lies in how the students view the subject of mathematics itself. When asked to define math, most students would say that math is the usage and manipulation of numbers. Though this is partly true, numbers and formulae are only a part of what mathematics truly is. There is so much more to math than the usage and manipulation of numbers. Mathematics is a method of description; how one can describe the world around us. This definition merits the usage of language, words, symbols, and the like. If students can come to terms with this definition of math and understand that math is more than just numbers, then when faced with a problem with more words than numbers, students wouldn’t feel so scared to approach it. Word problems offer the student a practical application to the topics learned and is a good learning tool to build the appropriate foundations in mathematics.

So how then should a student approach such a problem? Say a student understands that math is more than numbers, has a solid foundation in arithmetic and number sense, and can derive all sorts of formulae. What now

Make a Visual

Sometimes the scenarios portrayed in these problems can be hard to imagine. Making a visual to the words such as drawing a simple sketch can help the students understand the context of the problem and what the problem asks of the student. Often times, students are visual learners and setting up a visual can draw confusion away from the words and into a field that they are more comfortable with.

What is it Asking?

Take a look at the problem. What are some of the key words or phrases that are used? Is it asking to find the whole or a part? Is it asking how fast or how far? What information is given to you? What is the problem asking you to find? Highlighting these key words and phrases can help with narrowing down the topic and approach to finding the solution

Set up the Equation

From here, after making a visual and pinpointing what is known and what is asked, it is time to finally set up the equation. Remember that it is only after you understand what the problem is asking that you can set up the equation. If you don’t know what the problem looks like or asks of you, then how do you know what equation to use? It is only after gaining full understanding of what the problem asks can you find the right equation to use.


 Finally, all the pieces are set! You have a visual, you know what the problem is asking, and you have the equation set up. All that is left is to rely on your trusty arithmetic and algebra skills to finally solve the problem.


Solving word problems can definitely be a scary thing to approach and is a difficult beast to tame. The most important thing to remember when solving problems and building up your skills is that with more experience, comes greater ease when approaching these problems. By breaking down the problem into smaller bits can help with understanding and ultimately lead to finding a solution. By gaining an understanding of the nature of math and through enough practice and effort, any kind of mathematic endeavor would be approachable and easy to overcome! So remember to practice hard and you’ll come to appreciate word problems as any other math problem you come across.

At Mathnasium of El Segundo we build foundation and confidence in Math.  Come in for a one hour free trial session at our center and see the difference we can make!