The 3 Reads Protocol for Solving Word Problems

3 read protocol

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.

Raise your hand if you wish your students were more confident and successful in solving word problems. Right, that’s what I thought. And the answer probably doesn’t change much based on your grade level. Face it, word problems are just plain hard!

What doesn’t work

Over the years, very well-intentioned teachers have developed strategies designed to help students solve word problems. Two such strategies that are still quite prevalent are “problem-solving” models and the use of keywords. The idea is that if you follow these steps and look for these keywords, you will be able to solve any word problem. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple, and despite their widespread use, these strategies are not very effective.

3 reads protocol

If you look at the CUBES problem-solving model, reading the problem is not even one of the steps! And if you’re thinking, Well, of course students know to read the problem! you might want to watch this model in action. I have more often than not seen students just literally start circling numbers (and not even the labels that go with the numbers…) without ever having read the problem. And keywords are not reliable either. Some word problems have no keywords, and keywords in multi-step problems end up confusing students because of the mixed messages they send.

So can we just agree that something else is needed and put these “strategies” to rest? Students fail at solving word problems for one reason—they don’t understand what the problem is asking them to do. It’s a comprehension problem, so students need reading comprehension skills.

The 3 Reads Protocol

Let me first say that if you search the Internet for 3 Reads Protocol, you’ll find that there are slightly differing versions. What I’m about to describe is the version that I find to be particularly effective. Regardless of the version, we are reading the problem three different times and each reading has a different focus.

3 reads protocol

The 3 Reads Protocol is a guided learning experience. Students are presented with the problem in stages, and with each read the teacher asks probing questions. Looking at an example is probably the easiest way to understand the protocol, so let’s dive in.

3 reads protocol

To begin the 3 Reads Protocol, the teacher presents the students with a problem, and the class reads the problem together. Probably the easiest way to do this is with a PowerPoint or Google Slides file. Notice that with the first read, there are no numbers and no question. We just want the students to understand what the story is about and make a mental picture. Without numbers, students have to focus on the meaning of the words! After reading the problem together, the teacher asks what the story is about and calls on students for responses. Don’t be surprised if the responses are very general at first (girls, flowers, etc.). Ask for additional details, if necessary. Ideally, for this problem, you’d like the students to offer the names of the girls and the types of flowers.

For the second read, the problem is again presented to the students, but this time it includes the numbers. Read the problem again whole class. The questions you will ask now are all related to the numbers in the story. Our goal is for the students to understand that it’s not just 10, it’s 10 daisies. Students might also offer relationships—e.g., Natassja picked more daisies than Ayriale.

Finally, with the third read, students are asked to generate questions that could be answered using the information in the problem. Even though the problem looks just like it did for the second read, don’t skip the reading part! Some problems won’t lend themselves to very many different questions. I like to use this problem as an example because many different questions can be generated. Why? Because there are lots of different numbers in the problem. Here’s a sampling of questions that could be asked. I’m sure you can think of many others.

  • How many flowers did Ayriale pick?
  • How many flowers did Ayriale and Natassja pick?
  • Which girl picked more flowers? How many more?
  • How many daisies did the girls pick?

That’s the protocol in a nutshell! Once a question or questions have been generated, you can have students go on to solve the problem.

Frequently asked questions

1. When students are solving word problems independently, do I ask them to ignore the numbers and the question?

No! That would be pretty much impossible for them to do. By routinely solving problems using the 3 Reads Protocol with either the whole class or in small groups, you are helping students develop good reading habits that will transfer to their independent work. When they are working independently, the idea is that they will automatically think about the context, identify what the numbers mean within that context, and better understand what the question is asking them to find.

2. Where do I find problems for the 3 Reads Protocol?

I’m sure you can find some that have already been prepared, but it’s super easy to make your own! Just set up a PowerPoint or Google Slides file and format it however you like. Maybe you want a colorful border or a particular font. Use problems that you already have from your resources—textbooks, supplemental books, etc. You’ll need two slides for each problem. On the first slide, type the problem from your resource, leaving out the numbers and the question. On the second slide, add in the numbers. Use a nice big font so students can easily read the problem when projected on your interactive whiteboard. That’s all there is to it!

If you have other questions, add them in the comments below, and I’ll add them to the FAQ. I’d also love to hear how the 3 Reads Protocol is working out in your classroom!



  1. Robin Carlile

    fantastic thoughts! I LOVE this approach. I’ve used a resource from Lucky Little Learners that is called Numberless Word Problems. This 3 reads protocol will work perfectly with that resource!

    • Donna Boucher

      Yes! It does include elements of numberless word problems, which I was first introduced to by Brian Bushart.

  2. Barbara

    Excellent post!

    • Donna Boucher

      Thank you! This strategy has so much potential for teaching students to approach word problems in a much more meaningful way!

  3. Kerri

    Hello! This strategy looks great and reaffirms how I’ve been teaching my son to read the problems through as many times as he needs to understand. Now I have the right questions to ask with each reading! Thank you! My question, are there still some strategies to go along with this protocol that you have found to be helpful to use in conjunction i.e. drawing a picture, making a chart, etc. Thanks so much!

    • Donna Boucher

      I’m so glad this provides you with the missing link! Drawing a picture or diagram is another powerful strategy that goes really well with 3 Reads because it helps students visualize what’s going on in the problem.

  4. Nat

    Thank you for your post. The Three Read strategy is a gentle reminder of the power of cross-curricular reading strategies; coupling this annotation and graphic organizers will help students develop ways to process and solve simple to more complex multi-step word problems.

  5. Marisa

    I am a math interventionist at an elementary school. We see students K-5 and realize how important it is for us to have a common process/language when it comes to word problems. Looking forward to learning more about this and helping guide our school, thank you!

    • Donna Boucher

      I absolutely agree about using common language and strategies campus-wide! It’s so much more effective than students having to adjust to their teacher’s language/strategies every new year.

  6. Nancy

    Thank you! I am going to try Three Reads Protocol for the first time next week with my 4th grade students. I am excited. I have had students read word problems all the way through before trying to solve the problem, however, I love the 3 Reads approach and the questions that go with each read. Thank you for breaking it down.

    • Donna Boucher

      It’s a very powerful strategy! Good luck. 😀


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