word problem joke

The Problem with Word Problems

Word problems are hard. Word problems are confusing. Kids hate word problems.


A student’s first experience with word problems is often overwhelming. They are used to seeing straightforward problems such as “3 + 8 = ?” or “121 ÷ 11 = ?”. Then we throw long-winded sentences at them and ask them to make equations from them. No wonder kids hate them!

What can you do?

Start Early

math on whiteboardIt is best to introduce math words and word problems at a young age. And there should be a smooth transition from simple equations to multi-step word problems.

As soon as you begin asking your child to add two numbers, get in the habit of writing down and saying out loud both the numerical expression, e.g. “2 + 2 = ?”, and the verbal equivalent, e.g., “What is two plus two?”. It is very important to write and say the words, then have your child repeat them. Use the same approach as you transition to subtraction, multiplication, and division.

In doing this, you are training his brain to be as comfortable with math words as it is with numbers. Then when he encounters his first word problems as part of his regular school work, he will understand the meaning of the statements, and it’ll be much easier for him to solve them. And since he has never developed a fear of word problems, he’ll have no issues with learning increasingly complex solution processes as he progresses through school.

He will be comfortable with word problems, and it will show in his math grades.

It’s Not Too Late

But what if your child is already afraid of word problems? Not to worry. It will take a little time and effort, but you can help him get past this barrier.

Start by stepping backwards. Choose numerical problems that your child finds easy, and write one or more verbal equivalents next to them on a whiteboard. The more variations you come up with, the better. (I’ve included a section at the end of this post to help you with the most common keywords associated with the four basic operations.)

Here are a couple of examples:

    8 x 6 = ?        What is 8 times 6? What do I get if I multiply 8 times 6? What is the total if I have 8 groups with 6 things in each group?
    50 ÷ 5 = ?     What is 50 divided by 5? What is the result if I divide 50 by 5? If I divide 50 things into 5 equal groups, how many things are in each group?

Next, begin asking your child to come up with the questions.

toy race carWhen he is comfortable with that, start making up simple word problems to go along with some of the examples you’ve been using, like this:

    8 x 6 = ?      Mary’s mom buys eggs in half-dozen cartons. If she purchased 8 cartons, how many eggs did she buy?
    50 ÷ 5 = ?    Tom has 50 toy race cars. He wants to share them with his four best friends so that everyone has the same number of cars. How many cars will each of the 5 boys have?

Finally, begin asking your child to make up his own word problems to go with numerical and verbal expressions. After he creates his first word problem, he’ll start to see that they are nothing to be afraid of.

By following this process, you are building on your child’s knowledge and approaching word problems from a comfortable place, rather than jumping into strings of sentences that look complex and confusing. Just take it a step at a time, and you’ll get there.

Common Math Words

add subtract multiply divideWord problems use a variety of terms for the four basic operations. I’ve listed some of the most common terms below.

Addition Words: add, plus, sum, combine, all together, increase by, total, gain, raise

Subtraction Words: subtract, difference, minus, take away, fewer, less, (are) left, remain, how much more, how many fewer, words ending in “er” such as “How much tallER is Cathy than Karen?”

Multiplication Words: multiply, times, product, double, triple

Division Words: divide, quotient, shared evenly, half, group

You will encounter other words, too. But these are the most commonly used terms for elementary school students.

Don’t Forget to Make It Fun!

smiley faceWhile you’re writing, or asking your child to write, equations and sentences on the whiteboard, don’t forget to draw pictures to go along with the problems. And definitely throw in a smiley face every now and then.

A little fun and encouragement will go a long way in your efforts to help your child become comfortable with word problems.

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