If I asked you to name a math skill that students have trouble mastering, odds are that solving math word problems might enter the conversation. We often think that just by solving more and more word problems, students will somehow get better at it. But how about if we take a different approach and choose quality over quantity?
Part of the problem is that over the years very well-intentioned teachers have tried to turn the process of solving word problems into an algorithm—if you follow these steps, then you can solve math word problems. As a result, we see widespread use of “strategies” like CUBES. Unfortunately, CUBES only works with the simplest of problems. Consider this problem:
Not a terribly complicated problem, right? It’s a fairly straightforward multiplication problem with a little extra information thrown in. So let’s apply the CUBES strategy. To start with, nowhere in the CUBES strategy does it actually tell students to read the problem! And if you’ve ever watched students use CUBES to try to solve a problem, you’ll quickly see that they don’t. They scan the text, circling the numbers as they go. We’ve basically given them permission not to read. Next, notice that keywords don’t help at all in this problem. The only keyword is increase, which indicates addition. Finally, since students don’t really understand what the numbers in the problem represent, they can’t identify that the $8 increase is extra information. Hence, they end up adding the three numbers, not even realizing they are adding together money and memberships. For an alternate method that actually helps students solve math word problems based on understanding, check out this post on the Three Reads Protocol.
So how can we actually help students become more accomplished in solving word problems? Well, we emphasize quality over quantity. Instead of solving pages of word problems, we let students write their own! If students can write word problems, trust me, they can solve them. One of my favorite activities is called You Write the Story. It’s super effective and super low-prep—an awesome combination! Students are given an expression, and their task is to write a story problem, draw a model showing the problem, and then solve it. You can see from the index cards below how easy it is to differentiate the task.
Of course, writing word problems is a skill we need to teach. Don’t rush this! Do plenty of guided writing before you assign it as an independent task. Here’s a process I find to work well. First, I’m going to ask students what they notice about the expression. This helps them focus on the magnitude of the numbers and the operation (addition). Next, model what it sounds like to develop the idea for a story problem. It’s a story, so we need to think about the characters, the setting, and the action taking place.
Here’s what it might sound like:
For some reason, I’m thinking about milking cows! Silly, right? So, the story is about Farmer Jon and his son. The story takes place in Farmer Jon’s barn. What’s happening is that Farmer Jon and his son are milking cows. And the numbers in the story represent the cows that Farmer Jon and his son milked. Now I’m ready to put it together and write my story.
Farmer Jon and his son were milking cows in the barn. Farmer Jon milked 34 cows and his son milked 18 cows. How many cows did Farmer Jon and his son milk?
We also want to model the process for drawing a representation. A simple part/whole diagram is perfect for helping students visualize what the numbers in a problem stand for and what number they are looking for. Remember, it’s important for students to label their diagrams so they can make a connection to the meaning of the numbers in the problem and their relationships.
You Write the Story can easily be adapted. Students need to be able to solve problems with the unknown in any position. So how about a card that looks like this?
And, you can even provide students with a model and ask them to write a story, provide the equation, and solve the problem. Here are a couple of examples.
So, there you have it! Are you ready to give You Write the Story a try? If you do, I’d love for you to drop a comment and share your experience.