Solving Word Problems: Teaching Strategies for Middle School

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

At the middle school level, it is important to make sure that your math instruction is related to real world situations. This lesson offers some teaching strategies you can use to get your students successfully solving word problems.

Why Word Problems Matter

As a middle school math teacher, you have multiple jobs to think about at the same time. On the one hand, you are introducing your students to increasingly intricate mathematical concepts and skills. On the other hand, you are also responsible for ensuring that your students stay engaged and motivated, even as they enter an age when the social world can be more intriguing than the academic one!

One answer is to make sure your students are doing math work that applies to their daily lives and what they understand about the world around them. This means giving students plenty of different opportunities to work with word problems.

However, you cannot simply give your students a lot of word problems using complex middle school math and expect them to intuit what to do. The strategies in this lesson will help you teach your students how to work successfully with word problems.

Verbal Strategies

This section focuses on strategies that help your students untangle the language-based aspects of word problems.

Finding Key Words

When your students are presented with a word problem, ask them to start by going through and highlighting or underlining keywords. Explain that keywords are those that give a clue to what operations or procedures will be used to solve the problem.

Identify the Questions

Explain to students that after they identify the keywords in a problem, their next job is to carefully identify the question. After all, if they do not understand the problem, how can they possibly solve it? Once students have identified the question, challenge them to restate it in their own words. This will help them determine what they will need to do in order to find an appropriate solution.

Break It Down

Sometimes, math problems at the middle school level can be complex simply because they are full of dense and complicated language. Give your students several wordy problems to work with, and ask them to work on breaking them down. In other words, they should try rewriting or orally restating the problem in simple steps. Then, ask them to figure out what order they would tackle these steps in as they solve the problem.

Write Your Own

One of the best ways to get middle school students solving problems is to have them write problems themselves. When students write their own problems, they will involve situations that are authentic and meaningful, and you will be able to assess students' facility with the concepts at hand.

Visual Strategies

Here, you will find strategies that will encourage your students to visualize their thinking related to math.

Draw It

Many middle school students used to draw their strategies for math when they were in the younger grades, but as they developed, they may have been encouraged to move toward more abstract representation. Still, it can be useful to have them revisit these older strategies.

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