Why Students Struggle With Word Problems (and How to Help Them!)

10:00 AM

Word problems are hard. Even I occasionally find myself stumped with figuring out how to correctly solve a word problem - so imagine how our students must feel sometimes!

There are many factors that contribute to why students often struggle with word problems. Fortunately, no student is a lost cause when it comes to this challenging skill. By recognizing why our students might be struggling, we can come up with a strategy to best help them.

Here are some of the common reasons why students have a hard time with word problems, and what you can do to help.

Problem #1: Reading Comprehension

One of the biggest reasons why some students struggle with word problems is because they aren't just regular math problems - they involve reading! And more than that, students have to be able to fully comprehend what is happening in the problem in order to figure out how to solve it. Therefore, a lack of reading comprehension can play a huge part in a student's ability to solve word problems.

How to Help

If you notice a student is struggling with word problems because of their reading comprehension, then focus on helping them to better understand what's happening in the problem. The best way to do this will vary from student to student, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Have the student draw a picture of what's happening as they read it
  • Use pictures or other visuals
  • Act out the word problem
  • Ask lots of questions while reading the problem to keep students focused
  • Change the word problem to be more relevant to the student

Problem #2: Only Looking at the Numbers

One super common issue that all elementary math teachers have run into is that students often don't actually stop to read the problem, but instead pull out the numbers and use a random operation. Unfortunately, this problem often occurs because of the way math textbooks are often designed. The word problems in a particular lesson, of course, have to do with that lesson. If I'm teaching a lesson on subtraction, students can assume that the word problems that follow are going to involve subtraction. This has unintentionally trained our students that they don't need to actually read the problem - they just need to know the numbers. Of course, this presents an issue on tests that cover a variety of concepts.

How to Help

Two things can be done to help in this situation. First, students need to be in the habit of solving a variety of different types of word problems daily. We need to expose them to word problems regularly, but not that all use the same operation to solve. If your curriculum doesn't already do this, add in a few practice problems each day to help diversify the types of problems your students are being exposed to.

Another thing you can do is use numberless word problems. That is, remove the numbers from the problems so students are first forced to pay attention to what's happening. Discuss the problem without the numbers; then, when students are ready, add the numbers back in. This will help get students into the habit of reading the problem.

Problem #3: Tricky Language

One big problem I've found with word problems is that many curriculum and exam writers use tricky language, designed to trip students up. I have mixed feelings about this tactic; however the reality is, that's the way it is! So, even if your students have great reading comprehension and fully understand how to solve a problem, they may still get misled by the wording of the problem and solve incorrectly.

How to Help

Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot you can do about the way problems are worded. However, there are still ways that you can help your students to not get tripped up. First, do NOT teach students that certain words indicate any specific operation. This is a practice that used to be commonly used, but textbook companies have caught on and now use that against us. If students have been taught that in the past, you may have some unteaching to do.

The language used is still important to pay attention to, we just don't want students thinking that certain words ALWAYS mean something (such as "more" ALWAYS means addition. Sometimes, yes, but not always). 

Teaching students to use the language instead to help them determine whether the numbers in the problem are a part or the whole is much more effective. For more information on this strategy, check out this post.

Word problems can be tricky, and if you have questions about the best practices to teach them effectively, I have a FREE video series going on right now you might be interested in! Click here to sign up for the free training now.

Comment below if you have any questions or tips for teaching word problems! I'd love to hear from you!

by Kayla @ The Average Teacher

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  1. Anonymous9/29/2022

    Thanks, great post.

  2. Anonymous1/10/2023

    Hi, who is this written by? Needed for a citation!


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