Teaching Elementary Students Math Word Problems: Taking the Mystery out of Solving Word Problems

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Students bring to the classroom a diversity of learning styles that can range from auditory, kinesthetic, verbal to visual. For elementary students who are voracious learners taking the mystery out of math word problems begins with a visual flowchart.

Create a Flow Chart

Teachers can create effective test-taking strategies in math classes by creating a flow chart outlining and verbalizing all aspects of word problems. When students can visualize the problem-solving expectations and apply that learning to other problems, the mystery is taken out of how to solve word problems for students who struggle in the classroom. Let’s start by looking at Word Problem #1:

Word Problem #1:

The Johnson family took a holiday drive to visit relatives in Seattle, Washington. They drove from Kansas City, Missouri to Seattle in 55 hours. Their travels took them a distance of 3200 miles. What was the Johnson family’s average speed during their holiday trip?

1. What are the math terms you will need to solve this problem? Hint: Reread the problem to find them.

Answer: distance, average speed and time (Family took a trip. Family drove a distance. Family took identified time to drive from Kansas City to Seattle. Family drove X-average speed to get from Kansas City to Seattle.

2. What do you know about average speed, distance and time from Monday’s lesson on speed and distance?

Answer: If you have two knowns, then you can find the third unknown.

3. What are you your knowns? What is your unknown (i.e. what are you trying to solve for?)

Answer: Knowns are time = 55 hours to drive from Kansas City to Seattle and distance is 3200 miles for the trip. Unknown is the average speed = X

4. Write a word problem for the unknown?

Answer: Distance = time x average speed; If X=average speed, then it needs to be isolated by itself, so using the distance equation, you would divide time on each side to cancel time out on the right side of the equation and have it divided by distance on the left side. The final world problem for the unknown would be: Average speed = Distance/time

5. What is the answer for unknown - average speed in this problem?

Answer: Average Speed (X) = Distance (3200 miles) / time (55 hours) = 58,2 miles/hour.

Now let’s mix it up and have students use the same word equation to problem solve the following problems:

Word Problem #2

The band went on a field trip to Denver, Colorado during the spring break from Salem, Oregon. Their average speed was 56.2 miles/hour and it took them 36 hours to get to Denver. What was the total distance of the trip?

Word Problem #3

Using the information in #2, If their average speed was 60 miles/hour and their distance was (use the number you calculated in #2), how long did their trip take (i.e. calculate time).

Teachers can provide a number of word problem formats to give students problems to create, process and problem solve so that word problems become the first answered on tests and on homework assignments.