In first grade, when so much is new, word problems can be a bit overwhelming. I have created a simple, step by step process that our first grader has used to solve word problems. It shows her how to think through the problem and its real-life application. And it gives her the tools to know where to begin–often the biggest challenge–and keep her on track to the end of the problem.
I created an infograph to sum up (math pun intended) the steps for you. You can find it for download here and on Pinterest for your pinning pleasure. But in this post, I discuss the steps in a little bit more detail.
Mary had 7 apples. She ate 5 of them. How many apples did Mary have left?
Step 1 – Ask Yourself, “Do I Add or Subtract?”
This is the most daunting step and the one I suggest you invest real time getting your child comfortable with. To accomplish this, I have my daughter look for clue words. I allow her to reference a list with some of these clue words for addition and subtraction.
IMPORTANT NOTE: As you can see, these words do not always come all together in the word problem. In our example, “how many” is separated from the word “left” by other words.
How many apples did Mary have left?
So the child must be taught to look carefully and not jump to the conclusion that when they see “how many” they are done looking and simply add.
Next, I teach her to double-check her conclusion–in this case that she must subtract–by asking herself if it make sense. This is where you need to help her talk through several word problems and its real-life application. “Mary has some apples. She eats some. So now she’s going to have less than before.”
Ask questions to get your child picturing the scenario. “When we take away what are we doing? Subtracting. We are looking for the difference between how many apples Mary started with and how many she has now. When we find the difference what are we doing? Subtracting.” Teach your child to self-assess by asking themselves these types of questions.
Step 2 – Write the Math Fact
Once Step 1 is done–phew–this one should be easy.
7 – 5 = ___
Boom! Check to be sure that they are writing the correct symbol to go along with their conclusion in Step 1 (+ for addition, – for subtraction).
Step 3 – Solve the Math Fact
Insert your own process here. Here, the actual method you use to solve the math fact will depend on your curriculum and your child’s skill level with addition or subtraction. There are many, many great methods to use for each and I have pinned some of them here. In our case, we began the year using a number line for addition and subtraction and moved to counting dots. To each their own.
7 – 5 = 2
Step 4 – Check Your Answer
I think it’s vital to build self-checking strategies into your child’s routines from the very beginning. It is not just a skill to be pulled out at test time. So here, for the second time, we self-assess. For subtraction, we do a simple–add the answer to the bottom number and see if it equals the top number.
2 + 5 = 7
So we’re good! And now finally . . .
Step 5 – Write the Label
Here, she looks for the word or words following “how many” and, again, self-assesses by asking herself if it makes sense. Talk it out. “What things are being added or subtracted?”
OR if you want to be a stickler for answering in complete sentences like I am . . .
Mary had 2 apples left.
These steps have helped her tremendously. She feels empowered to break down a word problem into manageable pieces and knows, step by step, how to get the correct answer.
I allow her to reference a 3 x 5 card with these steps on it and a list of the “clue words” on the opposite side. That is, until I created my awesome infograph! And now I let her use that.
These steps will become automatic over time and no reference will be needed. But there is a whole heck of a lot going on in those young minds when they think through a word problem. And I find the written reminder so helpful to her focusing on the task at hand and not worrying about what to do next.
Please share your tips and strategies for helping your little ones with word problems and download the step-by-step infograph here.