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math problems

How to Make Word Problems More Engaging for Students

Math, Story Problems
Photo of word problem projected on white board.

Word problems. Just the mention of those two words can make many students break into a cold sweat. These mathematical conundrums have long been a source of frustration and anxiety for learners of all ages. However, as educators, we have the power to transform these intimidating challenges into engaging opportunities for growth and learning.

Word problems are not only integral to mathematics education but also play a crucial role in developing critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and real-life application of mathematical concepts. Yet, all too often, they become a tedious exercise in plugging numbers into formulas, leaving students disenchanted and disconnected from the beauty of mathematics.

The good news is that there are practical strategies and creative approaches we can employ to make word problems more captivating and relevant to our students. By infusing excitement and relevance into these mathematical puzzles, we can foster a genuine interest in problem-solving, encourage active participation, and ultimately empower our students to become confident mathematical thinkers.

In this blog post, we will explore a variety of techniques and approaches to transform the way we present word problems to our students. From incorporating real-world contexts and relatable scenarios to leveraging collaborative learning, we will discover how to make word problems come alive in the classroom. So, let’s dive in and uncover the secrets to making word problems more engaging for our students. Together, we can turn these mathematical challenges into exciting adventures that inspire a lifelong love for learning.

Tip#1 – Use real-life examples

Use word problems that relate to real-life situations that students can relate to. This will help students see the practical applications of math and make it more interesting. I like to bring in real-world examples that fit students’ interests. I also like to bring in word problems from my own experience – at the grocery store, at a restaurant, trying to figure out how many stickers come in the pack, etc.

Tip #2 – Encourage group work

Photo of teacher standing and helping 4 students who are sitting.

Encourage students to work in groups to solve word problems together. This will allow them to discuss their ideas and work collaboratively, which can help them better understand the problem and come up with creative solutions.

Building Thinking Classrooms is a great example of collaborative group work and problem solving. You can learn more about it >>> HERE.

Tip #3 – Provide visual aids

Photo of Subtraction Strategies Anchor Chart.

Use visual aids such as diagrams, charts, and graphs to help students visualize the problem and better understand the concepts involved. I create a lot of math anchor charts with my students, which they can then refer back to during independent work and word problems. Visual aids are great to help students who might need a little assistance getting started or a reminder of strategies they know.

Tip #4 – Students share strategies

When it comes to solving word problems in math, students often employ a wide range of strategies. These strategies should be shared and celebrated in the classroom. By encouraging students to share their approaches, whether it’s using diagrams, creating equations, or employing mental math techniques, we can create a vibrant learning environment where students learn from each other, gain new perspectives, and build confidence in their problem-solving abilities.

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Additional Word Problem Resources:

Addition Math Strategies

Blog header with photo of addition math strategy.

Math has always been one of my favorite subjects to teach.  I think one of the main reasons why I enjoy teaching math so much is the variety of strategies that can be used to solve a math problem.  After reading this post you’ll learn four different addition math strategies that your students could use to help boost their understanding and math problem solving abilities.

Variety of Math Strategies:

While in math there is typically one right answer – there are many different ways you can get there. When I was in school I was good at math and got the right answer, but had no idea how or why.  For addition, my teacher taught me one way – with carrying over and I did and I got the answer. But, I didn’t really understand the “why” behind the math. What I love about teaching math now is we let kids figure it out for themselves.  We give kids a chance to explore multiple strategies and find the right one for them. There is no more one size fits all.  I wish I had learned math this way when I was younger (and please know I’m not faulting my past teachers – this is just the way it was taught then).

Addition Math Strategies:

Below you will see four different addition math strategies that your students might use.  Each student will be in a different spot with their math strategies. For example, some students need the concrete/manipulatives and place value strategy will be best for them.  Other students might be really good at breaking numbers apart and using them in different ways – then break apart or expanded might be best for them.  

Students can also move through the strategies.  One student might start with place value strategy, but as they become more comfortable in math they then move on to empty number line or one of the others. Students aren’t pigeon holed into their strategy. Think of it almost like a buffet where they can try the different strategies and see which one works best for them.

Place Value Strategy:

Example of place value addition math strategy. Students use base-10 blocks to solve the problem.

Start by drawing out the place value model using base 10 blocks for each number.  Students would draw 3 tens sticks and 9 ones dots to represent 39 and then below 2 tens sticks and 8 ones dots to represent 28.  Then, count the ones.  There are 17 ones.  Since there are more than 10, you would regroup.  Circle the ten ones and draw an arrow to the new ten that you made over in the tens area.  Then count up your tens (10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60) and 7 ones and your answer will be 67.

Empty Number Line Strategy:

Photo of empty number line strategy.

For empty number line strategy you start with an empty line.  Students have a choice and can either start at 39 or 28.  This is a great learning opportunity to talk about what is more efficient.  It would be easier to count up 28 then 39.  So on the left side of the number line, place the number 39.  Then, for counting there are multiple options.  We want to avoid students counting all 28 by ones so they can break it into tens and ones. Some students might start at 39 and jump 10 to 49 and 10 to 59 and then count up 8 ones to get to 67. Some students might start at 39 and jump 20 to 59 and then 8 ones to get to 67. There are multiple ways students can use the number line to help them solve the problem.

Break Apart Strategy:

Photo of break apart addition math strategy.

For the break apart strategy it is just what it sounds like – students are going to break the numbers apart into tens and ones. 39 breaks into 30 and 9. 28 breaks into 20 and 8.  Students will then add 30 and 20 and get 50. Then, add 9 and 8 and get 17. Then they’ll add 50 and 17 to get 67.

Expanded Form Strategy:

Photo of expanded form addition math strategy.

This is one of my favorite strategies and it is very similar to the break apart strategy.  Students will start by writing both numbers in expanded form.  39 expands to 30 + 9 and 28 expands to 20 + 8. These numbers will be written vertically on top of each other (ones on top of ones, tens on top of tens).  Then students add straight down.  9 + 8 = 17. The student will write down 7 in the ones spot and then move the 10 up to the 10s spot.  Then add 10 + 30 + 20 = 60.  Then, put the numbers back together 60 + 7 = 67.

Addition Practice FREEBIE:

Grab a FREE set of Differentiated Addition Word Problems for your students to use to practice their addition strategies. Click HERE for your FREEBIE!

Even More Addition Practice:

Photo of 3 addition word problem worksheets.

If you’re looking for some addition practice pages for your students to practice these strategies – I have worksheets already created for you.  Best part is – they are differentiated into 3 levels! These Addition Word Problem Printables are great for independent practice, homework, formative assessments, and more. Check them out here >>> Addition Differentiated Word Problem Worksheets.

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