2 Strategies to Make Word Problems Accessible for All Students

April 03, 2024

If you’ve been following along with our Word Problem series on the Fishtank Blog, you already know why teaching word problems is important, and how you can effectively facilitate them in the classroom. Now, we are going to shift our focus to ensuring every student can meaningfully engage with the word problems you present. 

There are many strategies you can use to support the unique needs of the students in your classroom, but we are going to focus on 2 strategies that specifically make word problems more accessible. If you want more general strategies to support the multilingual or other diverse learners in your classroom, dive into our Fishtank Teacher Tools.


1. Make the Problem Make Sense

Word problems can be challenging for many students, especially those that have some anxiety around math already. When they approach a word problem, they may not immediately understand what the important information is, what they are being asked to do, or how the computational skills they’ve developed in class can be applied to the specific context. 

To help students bridge this gap between what they know, and what they need to do to solve a given word problem, teachers can focus on making the problem make sense. By helping students understand the situation, and how math can answer a specific question, teachers empower students to more confidently approach novel math situations. 

So, how can you make a problem make sense for students? At Fishtank, we have many ways we try to help students make sense of math problems, but three of our favorite options are numberless word problems, student-generated questions, and 3 Act Tasks.  


Numberless Word Problems

Not all word problems have numbers—and this can really help students focus on the context of the problem and the conceptual understandings they need to apply to solve it. If you haven't seen a numberless word problem before, you probably aren’t the only one. It’s easy to think that every math problem we put in front of students has to have numbers, but looking at this Anchor Task from Lesson 15 of the 3rd Grade Multiplication and Division Part 1 unit, you can see the deep thinking students can do without numbers. 

Anchor Problem

While this Anchor Task is specifically designed to be numberless, teachers can take any word problem and remove the numbers when first introducing it to students. This can be particularly helpful when students are struggling to make sense of a problem’s context or are jumping into computations too quickly. 

While students will eventually need to work with numbers and apply their computational skills to real-world scenarios, allowing them to start thinking without numbers provides an access point that otherwise might not exist. Students that get nervous about their fluency skills or get overwhelmed by the information in a problem have the opportunity to focus their attention and their thinking more generally on the math concepts at play. From there, students can build the confidence and concrete skills they need to approach traditional word problems later. 

Another advantage of excluding numbers at first is that it can help students slow down their thinking and make sense of the situation before jumping in to solve. Some students will see numbers and want to do something with them right away—multiplying, adding, dividing—before they’ve taken the time to understand what a problem is asking them to do. Students can then translate this skill of slowing down and assessing the entire context to problems with numbers in the future.


Student-Generated Questions

When students interact with a real-world scenario in the math classroom, they are usually trying to answer a specific question using the information provided. This can limit their thinking about the scenario, causing them to only focus on one possible solution. What if, instead, students were given information about a scenario and were then tasked with creating word problems they could solve about that scenario?

By empowering students to write their own word problems, you not only encourage their creativity, but you encourage them to take ownership over the information in front of them and the many ways they could use math in context. This process can help students feel more comfortable with word problems over time as they learn to assess all the available information, create realistic contexts, and consider the types of solutions they could pursue. 

In Lesson 14 of the 3rd Grade unit Rounding, Addition, and Subtraction, students are asked to write their own word problem using the information they are given. 

Anchor Problem

While this particular problem shows up in the curriculum when students see two-step word problems for the first time in third grade, teachers can use this type of problem any time students are struggling with multi-step problems, particularly when students don't know where to start.

The more opportunities students have to create their own problems, the more deeply they understand how a word problem is structured, and how to make meaning of the problem before them.


3 Act Tasks

A 3 Act Task is a word problem structure that has 3 distinct “acts” across which students build a deep curiosity around the context of the problem, the information they need to answer the question at hand, and how to assess the reasonableness of their answer. By strategically separating these pieces and guiding students through each “act,” teachers can ensure students are fully grasping the problem at hand and offer support as they work to solve. Moreover, 3 Act Tasks help students see where math problems show up in real life; Students raise and answer mathematical questions about real-world scenarios, helping teaching avoid the “When am I ever going to use this?” questions. 

In Lesson 12 of the 4th Grade unit Multi-Digit Division, teachers ground the lesson in a 3 Act Task that pushes students to build curiosity about a mathematical situation, determine strategies to solve, and discuss the reasonableness of their solutions as a class. 

Anchor Problem

The first “act” encourages students to simply notice and wonder about an image. There are no right or wrong answers and therefore every student can offer something to the class discussion. Starting with this kind of open-ended, creative questioning ensures all students have access to the content right away. Students will feel more confident moving into the next steps, where they will hone in on the mathematical concepts needed to solve, because they are already engaged with the problem and have an entry point to talk about it.

Over time, students learn to apply the same attention to detail and deep analysis of context to any word problem they see.


2. Strategic Modifications and Supports

While the above strategies to increase accessibility focus on how a student interacts with the content, there are also ways for teachers to modify what students are interacting with to increase access. In practice, teachers can make changes to the content, format, and structure of a word problem to better align with students’ individual needs. 

Some of the strategic modifications a teacher may choose to use range from rephrasing the problem using more accessible context or vocabulary to providing sentence stems for students to use when writing their final answers. 

Teachers can also provide additional supports and scaffolds to students directly on their word problem handouts. These could include engineering the text of a word problem,—including additional information and prompting questions to guide student thinking—or providing a helpful model such as a tape diagram for students to use as a jumping off point. While 

Within the Fishtank Math curriculum, teachers have the ability to modify all student facing materials when they unlock editable handouts and assessments with a Fishtank Plus subscription. This makes it easy for teachers to provide individualized supports and scaffolds to the students that need them.

While these are a few of our favorite ways to increase student access to word problems, we encourage teachers to continually reflect on their individual students and their unique needs. If you want more ideas for making the math classroom feel like a welcoming and supportive place for students to take academic risks when approaching word problems, dive into the Fishtank Blog for 6 Ways to Ease Math Anxiety and 4 Strategies to Get Students Talking in Math Class.

In the final post for our word problem series, we will be exploring the ways in which students build real-world skills and literacy that translates beyond the classroom through solving word problems. 


Want to learn more about making your math class engaging, effective, and efficient? Create your free Fishtank Learning account and never miss a blog post! You’ll also gain access to our free 3rd-8th grade, algebra 1, algebra 2, and geometry curriculum. Dive deeper into Fishtank’s approach to word problems and explore our Word Problem Bank with your Fishtank Plus account.

Related Blog Posts

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Why Teach Word Problems?

In the first post from our new word problems series, we explore why it's critical to engage students with word problems in math class. 

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