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  • Writer's pictureJessica Kaminski

Think Like a Reading Teacher When Solving Word Problems

You have probably noticed that I write a lot about word problems. There's a reason for that. Word problems are just plain challenging for many reasons. We know that they push students to apply the mathematics, but there's something else that holds back a lot of students- reading comprehension.

As a classroom teacher and then an academic coach to several teachers, I was actually a math and reading specialist. During my reading specialist days, I would work with teachers to help identify reading strategies that help students to comprehend what they are reading. Nonfiction or informational texts were always the most challenging, because they require students to pay close attention to every detail and synthesize that information. It wasn't until I began looking at how word problems are essentially informational texts that I realized the same reading strategies need to be used in solving word problems.

Many of our students who are beginning to solve challenging word problems begin at Grade 2 or around 7-9 years old. At this same age/grade level, many students are still developing key reading strategies that will help them analyze texts. Most students have a strong understanding of fiction texts, but nonfiction or informative texts require a whole different set of skills.

As I began to look at my math instruction from a reading specialist standpoint, I realized we needed to attack these word problems with a reading strategy. Just as I had a mini lesson when we did a reading lesson, I needed to think of each word problem as a reading lesson where I can teach students to read and make sense of the problem FIRST before solving it.

Reading Strategy #1: Read for Meaning and Ignore the Numbers

I remember the very first time I heard Dr. Ban Har, a Singapore math specialist, say this concept so simply- "Don't read the numbers!" It seems like such a basic idea, but there's really a strong principal behind it. When reading through information for the first time, it is helpful to ignore the numbers. Try reading this:

When you go to the store, I need you to buy 12 eggs, 4 cartons of milk, 2 bags of dog food and 16 cartons of yogurt.

What did I ask you to buy? What do you remember without looking back? Most people would remember the items and would need to look back at the numbers a second time to remember them. This is the strategy we need to utilize when teaching our students to read for information first when solving a word problem. Let's see how this looks:

  1. Present students with a word problem.

  2. Read it aloud to them skipping over the numbers. As you get to a number, replace the number with a word like "some" or "a few".

  3. Ask your students what they remember about the problem. Focus on what's happening in the problem. What do you know? What are you trying to find out?

  4. Read through the problem again saying the numbers on the second time through. How does this change the problem? What operations are you seeing?

Students may begin drawing the bar model or even consider the problem type before solving. That is the second step. The first step is to fully understand and comprehend the problem. This is especially important when solving multi-step problems.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some more reading strategies. Today, I want to encourage you to give this a try. To help you do that, I've created a full list of numberless word problems just for you! Simply read through the first problem using the strategies listed above. Then, use the second slide to insert numbers to practice solving. You can access your free download by clicking below:

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