Word Problem Strategies

by Laurie Laurendeau on February 14, 2012

Spring hasn’t quite sprung just yet, but in many parts of the country, Spring signifies flowers blooming and…standardized testing.  The Math portion of most standardized tests usually includes problem-solving questions, or word problems.  This is to ensure that students can successfully apply math concepts in real-life situations.  Students often dread problem-solving questions, because they are typically more difficult for them.  You can help your child tackle word problems with a few simple strategies.

Read the Whole Question: This sounds kind of obvious, but I’m always amazed at the number of students who begin to try to work out a problem before they’ve even finished reading it!  Remind your child to read the entire question through one time before being tempted to begin solving it.  He can certainly underline the important information as he reads through it the first time.

Underline the Important Information: If your child is allowed to write on the test question (sometimes they’re not), encourage him to underline the important information in the question.  Important information would include any numbers needed to solve the problem (sometimes numbers are written in words-watch out!), as well as any of the “clue words” (see below).

TMI: Too Much Information: Word problems are notorious for giving too much information, or useless information to try to distract the student.  Encourage your child to sift through the information and decide which numbers are truly necessary in order to answer the question.  Have him cross out any extra or useless information.

Look for Clue Words: There are often words in the word problem that give the student a clue as to which operation (addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) he will need to use to solve the problem.  Some problems are multi-step problems which may require the use of more than one operation.  Clue words for Addition include “in all”, or “altogether”.  Clue words for subtraction might include “what is the difference between…” or “how many are left”.  Multiplication clue words can look a lot like Addition ones, except that the numbers are usually bigger.

Multi-Step Problems: Some problems require more than one step to answer them completely.  Example:  Sally made bracelets for her friends.  She worked from 11:00am to 3:00pm each day for 3 days.  She was able to make one bracelet every hour.  How many bracelets was Sally able to make after 3 days of working?  Your child will first need to figure out how many bracelets Sally can make in one day by figuring out the elapsed time between 11:00am and 3:00pm.  He should come up with the answer of 4.  Ask your child what that 4 represents.  He should tell you that it’s the number of bracelets Sally made in one day.  Now ask him to re-read the question.  Ask him if the answer they are looking for is 4 bracelets.  Sometimes, children get caught up in the calculations, and they forget that they are only part-way done answering the question.  So, remind him that he still needs to figure out how many bracelets she can make in THREE days, which of course is 12 bracelets.

Watch Your Units: Watch out for questions where they express numbers in two (or more!) different units.  For example, they might ask something like:  “The candy factory produced 460 candies per hour.  How many candies did they make in a week?”  The student must first multiply 460 by 24 to get the number of candies produced in a day.  Then, he must multiply that answer by 7 to get the total for the week.  Another example:  “A girl ate 3 inches of licorice every day.  How many feet of licorice would she eat in eight days?”  The question starts by talking about inches, but they want the answer expressed in FEET.  So, the child must first multiply 3 by 8 to get 24 inches for the entire 8 days.  Then, he must convert 24 inches into feet, which would be exactly 2 feet, since there are 12 inches in a foot.

Show Your Work: Even if your child can do some of the calculations in his head, it is really important that he write it all down on the paper.  This is what teachers call “show your work”.  Since the teacher can’t be inside the student’s head, this gives them an idea how the student worked out the answer.  Encourage your child to write down the numbers needed to solve the question.  Maybe a simple picture would help organize his thoughts. Other tools might be to create a simple table to keep track of numbers.


  • As always, playing math games at home is a great way to reinforce math skills learned in school.
  • Have questions or ideas about this story?
  • Need help or advice about your child’s learning?
  • Have ideas for future Parent Homework Help stories?

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