Tips for Solving Math Word Problems

Question: Last year, my daughter struggled with math story problems. It’s the same story this year in 8th grade. She has no trouble reading the words but still can’t understand how to get the answer. Is there any way to help her?

Answer: Solving story problems in math is a major roadblock for many students, even in the upper grades. Even good readers find them challenging to understand since it’s hard to sort out relationships with so many facts and figures jammed into just a few words.

To learn to solve problems, your daughter must solve problems. In other words, the more problems your daughter solves, the better her problem-solving skills will become. Use the following four steps to help her learn how to tackle story problems with more confidence:

1. Understand the problem.
Your daughter must first be able to examine the information in a problem. Have her write down all the known and unknown facts. She might even find it helpful to draw a diagram to show the facts and relationships in a problem. Have her cross out all the irrelevant information and reread the last sentence several times. It usually tells what needs to be found out to solve the problem.

2. Think of ways to solve the problem.
This is difficult until children gain more experience and are able to relate previously solved problems to current problems. In complex one-step problems, it can be helpful for them to find the biggest number and then decide whether the answer is likely to be more or less than this number. If it’s more, the problem most likely will be solved using addition or multiplication. If it’s less, they will usually subtract or divide to get the answer. It can also help to simplify a problem by using much smaller numbers.

3. Solving the problem.
When doing the actual calculation, children have to make sure that they’re using the right numbers and that their calculations are correct.

4. After the problem is solved.
Getting an answer is not the end to problem-solving. Children need to consider whether their answer is reasonable. Does it make sense? Were their calculations correct? They should also think about ways to check an answer’s correctness.

Question: When I enrolled my child in kindergarten, I had the opportunity to choose one of two teachers. Since I did not know either one, I said it didn’t matter. Now I discover that my son has the teacher who does not teach nearly as many reading and writing skills as the other teacher. How can I make sure that he has all the academics needed for first grade?

Answer: Schools usually mix students from different teachers when children enter a new grade. Thus, the first-grade teachers at your son’s school should be used to handling children that have been in either teacher’s kindergarten class. Unfortunately, we have seen schools in which the children who have not had as much work in reading and writing are at a definite disadvantage on entering first grade.

It would be helpful for you to talk to one of the first grade teachers to find out exactly what your child is going to be expected to do when school starts in the fall. Also, ask this teacher how he or she handles children who have not been exposed to as many academic skills in kindergarten. This teacher should also be able to give you solid suggestions about ways to enhance your child’s reading and writing skills now and in the summer. This will probably include: teaching the letters of the alphabet; reading to your child; and helping your child identify rhyming words, print his or her name, and recognize several sight words.

Parents can send questions to Dear Teacher, P.O. Box 395, Carmel, IN 46082-0395 or

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