Why Teach Word Problems?

February 28, 2024

You’ve probably heard this before,–maybe even in class today!—”Why are we learning this?” Sometimes students don’t immediately see the value in learning a new procedure, or exploring new data representations in the math classroom. And while there’s value in every lesson they learn, one component of the math classroom is especially important: Word problems. 

Over the course of 4 blog posts, we are going to take a deep dive into word problems, exploring the following topics:

  • Why engaging students with word problems is so important 
  • Ways to facilitate word problems effectively
  • Strategies to provide access for all students
  • How students can translate their skills beyond word problems

In this first post of the series, we are going to focus on why word problems are so important to your math classroom.


What are Word Problems?

When we talk about word problems, it’s important to be specific about what we mean. Not all problems that involve a real-world context are necessarily the word problems we want to focus on. Instead, when we talk about word problems we mean problems that require students to apply a variety of strategies to unpack what the problem is asking, create relevant representations, solve using a chosen procedure, and assess the reasonableness of their answers in context.


Prioritize Mathematical Standards for Practice

So, now that we’ve figured out what kind of word problems are critical to the math classroom, let’s dive into the first reason why: Word problems prioritize the Mathematical Standards for Practice (MP) and ensure students are going beyond a surface level understanding of content. 

When students are given a purely numerical problem to solve, they are able to more readily identify the important information and the procedure they should apply to solve. While this is an important component of a student’s success in the math classroom, it leaves out a lot of the heavy lifting and deep thinking we want students to engage in. 

When a student instead is given a word problem, they first need to make sense of the problem (MP.1), applying their literacy skills in the math classroom, identify the necessary models and tools to solve (MP.4 and MP.5), and attend to precision (MP.6) as they complete relevant solving steps and present their solution in context. 

By engaging with math content and procedures in this way, students are able to demonstrate a deeper understanding of what they know and consistently apply their math skills with confidence. 


Critical Thinking

Beyond bringing a focus to the Mathematical Standards for Practice, engaging students in word problems encourages them to develop the critical thinking skills they need to approach problems across disciplines. 

When a student unpacks a word problem, they need to consider the context in which they are solving: Would it make sense for their answer to be a whole number? Will they need to round to the nearest hundredth? Will they need to include units? What kind of answer are they expecting to get, and why? These sorts of questions are important in the math classroom, but they are also important when students approach problems in other subjects and in their real-life experiences. 

By teaching students to think deeply about a problem before attempting to find a solution, you can set the foundation for them to thoughtfully approach situations and consider all relevant information. From there, students can begin to solve, engaging in a process which continually calls on their critical thinking as they determine each step of the process and consider how to most efficiently get an answer. 

Once students arrive at an answer, they again need to think critically about whether or not their answer makes sense. This is a particularly important process to teach your students because it can help them avoid handing in an assignment with careless errors as they learn to review their work with a critical lens.

As you review word problems with students, you can reinforce the critical thinking skills you want them to develop by sharing out a variety of solving approaches and encouraging students to analyze which is the best in the given context. This analysis reminds students to take their time when approaching a problem and think critically about each step, considering why they are doing it and if it is the best option available.


Build Knowledge and Create Connections

While we may think that knowledge-building curriculum is limited to subjects outside the math classroom, word problems offer a way to bring diverse content to your students. Whether you focus on culturally relevant themes, community specific prompts, or problems that reflect what students are learning in other classes, your word problems can provide an avenue to show students the value that their math skills provide. 

Similarly, you can use your word problems to create connections with students and show them that you see them for the people they are beyond your classroom. You may know that a certain student loves running, or has a dog they walk every day, or a job at a local grocery store, and you can use those specific contexts in your prompt. Students get excited to see their own names in word problems and feel more motivated to thoughtfully solve the problems they see. 

While there are many more reasons word problems are an important part of the math classroom, these offer just a few insights into their value for students. At Fishtank, we prioritize word problems in every unit because we want teachers to feel empowered to engage their students in this deep thinking. 

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.

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