Solving Complicated Math Word Problems


Written by Donna Boucher

Donna has been a teacher, math instructional coach, interventionist, and curriculum coordinator. A frequent speaker at state and national conferences, she shares her love for math with a worldwide audience through her website, Math Coach’s Corner. Donna is also the co-author of Guided Math Workshop.

What makes math word problems so difficult for students to solve? Well, if you’ve ever watched students fly through a word problem at warp speed, it’s pretty clear that many of our students haven’t developed strong habits for reading, analyzing, and comprehending the problems. Often, well-intentioned teachers have undermined the process by telling students to rely on keywords. We know for sure that’s not the path to understanding. When we teach keywords, we’re basically giving students permission to skip the whole reading and understanding part. Just look for the keywords and you’ll be okay. Instead, we should be providing students with sound strategies for comprehending math word problems.

Take, for example, multi-step word problems. The individual steps aren’t all that hard. The problems are just more complicated because there are more steps.

In working with students over the years, I have found three key strategies that really help students understand and be successful with math word problems, regardless of how complicated they are. Sure, there are lots of problem-solving strategies, but I have had GREAT success with these three steps.

Can you draw a picture?

Kids who have difficulty with word problems often don’t know what operation to do with the numbers they see in the problem. I have found that time and time again, drawing a picture can help unmuddy the water. They are simple math pictures, not pieces of art, and usually involve rectangles with numbers.

solving math word problems

Do you understand what every sentence means?

This is huge! Kids are used to speed-reading through problems, and that just won’t work when process skills are embedded. I find that when I make students read each sentence, stop, and thoughtfully consider what the sentence means, the meaning of the problem reveals itself! It’s not really magic, but don’t tell them that. 😉

Have you written an answer statement?

Students often answer a question. It’s just not the question that the problem asked. I have found that turning the question into an answer statement is one of the most powerful strategies for solving problems because it forces the kids to really consider and understand the question.

solving math word problems

See?  It’s really not that complicated after all!  I put the three steps into a poster you can hang in your classroom. There is also a half-sheet version you can print and have students put in their math journals.

steps for solving complicated math word problems

Download your copy of the steps for solving complicated problems.


  1. John Burke

    These are awesome! I love the idea of hanging these in the classroom, and I totally agree that S-L-O-W-I-N-G
    D-O-W-N is KEY!

    • Donna Boucher

      Yes! Along those lines, we also need to consider the number of problems we are giving students. Are we assigning so many problems that they have to rush?


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