Effectively Facilitate Word Problems

March 13, 2024

In the classroom, we know it isn’t enough to just put a problem in front of students and hope for the best. To get students to deeply engage with content, you need to ensure that the content you present is engaging and rigorous, and accessible and valuable for your students to learn from. In the math classroom, this kind of content consideration is particularly important when introducing word problems.

In this second blog post of our Word Problem series, we are going to shift our focus from why word problems are important, to how you can most effectively facilitate them in your classroom. If you haven’t already read the first post in this series, check it out on the Fishtank Blog and stay tuned for more on how to make the most of word problems. 


Selecting Worthy Word Problems

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the first step in successfully facilitating a word problem is selecting the right word problem. So, what exactly makes a word problem the right one, one that is worthy of your students’ attention and time? There are a few things to consider, but most importantly you want to ensure the problem is rigorous, relevant, and accessible.


The rigor of a word problem can come from the literacy demands, the mathematical processes needed to solve, or the application demands. When looking at the literacy demands of a problem, you want to identify a problem in which students can recognize what is being asked of them by carefully reading, and rereading, the prompt and identifying both key information and irrelevant information. 

When considering the mathematical processes students will need to use to solve, you want to consider what it is you hope students get from the word problem. Do you want to see how they approach a multi-step problem, how they use models and tools to solve, or how they apply a new formula? Depending on what you are looking for, you can hone in on the level of rigor you want them to see when solving. The more steps they need to complete, and the more information they need to pull from previous lessons, the more rigorous the problem solving process will be. 


You don’t want your students getting hung up on a specific word or term that isn’t relevant to the solving process. This is where the concept of accessibility begins to come in—we will explore accessibility more later in this post and in a future part of our series. For example, you might need to change the wording on a problem if the context is something your students have no familiarity with—unless you plan to introduce the term and use the opportunity to build knowledge. 

This ties into the idea that problems should be relevant for students. The contexts introduced should reflect what your students experience so they can connect to the material and feel motivated to engage with it. Further, the problems you present should reflect the diversity of identities and experiences in your classroom to ensure all students feel represented in the content. 


Finally, the application demands can make a word problem more rigorous, and significantly more worthy of attention. Application demands reflect how a student is using their previous knowledge and skills, whether from earlier lessons in the unit, the school year, or previous grades, to solve the problem at hand. The word problem they are looking at might be a completely novel scenario, but one to which they can apply a variety of learned skills to in order to solve. A problem like this requires students to engage in critical thinking, activate prior knowledge, and demonstrate a deeper understanding of the content.

These considerations are particularly important as education continually embraces artificial intelligence. While there are certainly many applications for the classroom, and generating word problems may seem like an effective use of AI, it can leave you with word problems that aren’t necessarily worthy of your students’ time. Beyond matching the relevance and accessibility, it can be difficult for AI generated content to match the standards and skills you hope to address. The pedagogical content knowledge you bring to your work makes you far more effective at creating problems that directly assess the skills and standards you want, in the combination that you want. 


Setting Students Up for Success

Once you’ve chosen a word problem that will engage your students in a meaningful solving process, you have to prepare them to solve it. Depending on the specific problem in front of students, you may need to define specific math vocabulary or introduce knowledge-building content, but no matter what the word problem looks like, you’ll want to ensure students know how to make sense of the problem and persevere in solving it. 

One way to help students make sense of a word problem, is to model the process for reading the problem with a critical lens. You can begin by demonstrating the need to read a word problem carefully, annotating for key information, and making note of any specific context that might impact the answer. You can also model the process of estimating an answer before beginning to solve; this might just mean determining whether the answer should be big or small, a whole number or a fraction, etc. 

Even as students learn to unpack word problems, they may still need more support to fully access the content and effectively engage with it. One way to provide this is by giving students the opportunity to discuss the problem with partners or small groups before they begin solving. By talking about the important information and potential approaches, students can work together to make sense of how they want to approach the task. 

Finally, to ensure students can carry-out their chosen solving process without unnecessary barriers, it’s important to provide them with the relevant tools. For some students, this may mean providing graph paper so they can create a model, and for others it might mean providing a calculator. If the goal is for students to understand the concepts and overarching strategy for solving a specific word problem type, you don’t want them to get stuck on a small detail like a calculation and therefore using a calculator may be an appropriate tool. 

These are not the only options for increasing access, but they provide a framework from which individual teachers can determine how to best support the students they serve. If you are eager to find more instructional guidance for supporting students, you can look to Fishtank’s Teacher Tool Library that has specific strategies for multilingual learners and other special populations


Valuing the Process of Learning

Even after you’ve given students a great problem and done your best to make it accessible, it isn’t guaranteed that every student will arrive at the correct solution. Luckily, this means there is a lot more learning to be done. When you create a classroom environment that celebrates the process of learning, incorrect answers are valuable tools for discussion and further exploration. 

With word problems specifically, valuing the process of learning is important because of the myriad ways students might solve and the multi-step processes that can introduce common errors. Once students have finished solving a word problem, you can begin to review the process as a whole group, or encourage students to first share their solving steps and final answers in small groups. By encouraging students to look at the varied approaches their classmates took, they can begin to consider the most efficient and effective ways to solve, deepening their understanding of content and the relevant applications. 

Additionally, students that did not end up with the correct answer can provide value to the group discussion by identifying where they went wrong. This creates an opportunity for students to strategize around how to avoid similar errors in the future and how to check their work as they go to more quickly recognize a misstep in solving. 

As you continue to engage students in rigorous word problems, consider how you can most effectively get students thinking and talking about the solving process, encouraging them to practice their critical thinking and communication skills as a community. 


This blog post is part of our Word Problems series. Read the first installment Why Teach Word Problems? and stay tuned for the next two installments. 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

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