Strategies for Solving Word Problems

Math is often a dreaded subject in school. But the most dreaded aspect of math, in my opinion, is the word problem. The word problem is the intersection where math and English meet. Students who struggle in one or both of these subjects find word problems nearly unsolvable. Not because they are particularly difficult, but because they lack the language and comprehension skills to solve them. 

Without a basic understanding of math concepts and math grammar, word problems feel like stories that don’t have an ending, roads that go on forever with no turnouts, or gaping black holes. Fear sets in, anxiety builds, and those word problems turn into ugly green monsters. Suddenly, unsolvable is exactly what they are. The good news is, word problems have strategies for solving them, much like most math concepts students will encounter. 

Learning Keywords

Understanding keywords is a huge aspect of solving a word problem accurately. Keywords refer to the words or phrases employed in word problems that give you clues as to how to solve them. If you can understand what keywords are being used, it will guide you to the proper equation or formula to rely on to solve it. Here is a list of common keywords:

AdditionSubtractionMultiplicationDivisionEquals
increased bydecreased by
ofper, ais, are, was, 
more thanminus, lesstimes, multiplied byout ofwere, will be
combined, togetherdifference between/ofproduct ofratio of, quotient ofgives, yields
total ofless than, fewer thanincreased/decreased by a factor of (this last type can involve both addition or subtraction and multiplication)percent (divide by 100)sold for, cost
sum, plusleft, left over, aftertwice, triple, etcequal pieces, split
added tosave (old-fashioned term)each (“they got three each”, etc)average
(“greater than”, etc)comparatives 


comparatives (“smaller than”, etc)


Understandings Units

More often than you might think, students answer word problems incorrectly because they don’t understand the unit of measure referred to in the problem. Often, word problems, especially those in more advanced mathematics, include multiple units of measure to trick students. This means that you not only have to know the units, you also need to be able to convert the units if necessary. Before you try solving the word problem, be sure you understand what the unit of measure is for your response. This will help clarify the necessary path to take to solve it. 

Set Goals

Understanding what the keywords are and what the unit of measure is for a word problem can help you set goals for solving it. Creating accurate goals is based on understanding what the word problem is asking you to solve. Once you have an understanding, you can then set goals with achievable steps to help work your way through the problem and find the answer. If you know what you are trying to achieve, taking the necessary steps toward achieving it is key. 

It’s like planning a meal. You need to have a time table, a recipe, and a menu. Think of your goals as your fancy dinner. What do you need to cook the food, serve the food, and eat the food? In other words, what is your goal for the evening? Or in this case, the word problem. 

Problem Solving Skills

We all know that problems can be solved in multiple ways. Easy ways, hard ways, long ways, short ways, and dangerous way. Word problems are similar in this regard. Like most skills in math, there are many different avenues you can choose from to arrive at the correct answer. Think outside the box. Try new things. Attempt multiples avenues for solving the problem and see if you end up with the same result. Use skills you have learned from other subjects like physics, history, economics, and more. The more options you have and the more skills you employ, the more likely you are to solve the problem in front of you and move on. 

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