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This 3-Step Process Makes Math Word Problems Easy!

Many students of math find word problems challenging, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This three-step process makes math problems easier! Better yet, it helps students train their skills in ways that are more easily applied to life beyond school, too.

When solving a word problem, a student should always follow these three steps:

This process is applicable across all types of math, and helps students practice their problem-solving skills in a way that can be applied to their lives beyond the classroom. Each step has a key reason for why it is done this way, and understanding the reasons can help kids accelerate their learning as well.

Here’s an example problem that students can use to try this process. This particular example is appropriate for second to fourth grade students depending on their skills.

Jenny has a box full of quarters which she sorts into piles. If she has $12 of quarters, and sorts them into six equal piles, how many quarters does it take to make two of the piles?

Reading this through gives us some very important information: This problem is all about quarters, even though the number of quarters is provided to us in dollars. There’s no need to start working with the numbers until a student also figures out what sort of answer the problem needs. The problem mentions that the quarters get separated into six piles, and wants to know how many quarters it takes to make two of those six piles.

Now a student can make a plan: First, to convert twelve dollars into a number of quarters. Then, divide that number of quarters into six groups. Finally, add two of the groups together or double them. (Older students, or especially clever ones, may have already caught that they could just divide the number of quarters into three groups. That works too!)

Twelve dollars thus becomes forty-eight quarters; forty-eight quarters get split into six groups of eight quarters each; and two of those groups together make up sixteen quarters. And thus the answer is sixteen quarters.

Interested in learning more? Have a student who wants to improve themselves? We run summer camps, holiday camps, and weekly classes all year long for ages 6 through 14 and grades 2 through 8 to improve all these skills and more – and to have fun doing it. You can see our offerings here and choose which classes are right for your student!

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Value Knowledge Over Grades

3 Steps to Solving a Math Word Problem

3 Steps to Solving a Math Word Problem

You don’t even have to tell me..

I know that word problems raise your math anxiety level more than any other math activity. How do I know that? My math tutoring students give me the death stare when it’s time to work on the word problem section of their math homework, every time.

Honestly, I used to have some apprehension to doing math word problems myself, even as a math geek, math major and math teacher! It seems crazy, but it goes to show that word problems aren’t just math.

Word problems require proficient reading comprehension so that you can understand what the problem is asking you. My reading comprehension was the weaker of the two subjects, as I explained in my math-moir “The Story of My [Math] Life” . But I had to practice and literally train my mind so that I could strengthen my reading comprehension if I wanted to help other math students with word problems.

Take a minute and think about 2 reasons why you avoid word problems at all costs.

Maybe you don’t understand what’s being asked.

Maybe you can’t relate to the situation.

Maybe you just don’t know how to find and apply the operations you need to use to solve.

Maybe you understand the question but that’s it. You don’t know what to do to answer it.

I’ve encountered students who have given me one or all of these reasons, which have helped me come up with a strategy to help you solve word problems like a champ! My method is outlined in the embedded video and also as text below the video.

3-Step Word Problem Solving Process

Step 1: rrtr - reading comprehension, step 2: 4-part scavenger hunt, step 3: solve with purpose and strategy, let’s learn more about each step.

You may need to grab a dictionary for this part.

Get your first introduction to the word problem and become familiar with the situation.

Try to read slowly and intentionally and point out specific details that may be needed to answer the question.

Swap out the numbers with blank spaces to help you focus on the situation, not rushing to solve the problem.

Really play out in your mind what is going on. Have you experienced this situation before? Are you not able to relate to this scenario? Are there words in this word problem that you’re not familiar with?

If you’re not able to relate, Google a phrase in the problem that sounds unfamiliar and do a little research to get a better understanding.

If there words you don’t know, don’t overlook them. Grab a dictionary and note down the definition. These words may contribute to you properly solving the the word problem. The Pre-Algebraic Translation Guide can help you identify and translate some of these verbal words and phrases into Algebraic expressions as well.

4. Re-Write the problem using these three steps.

Re-write the problem in your own words.

Re-writing the word problem given to you in your own words will do so many great things for you:

Like putting yourself in the place of the person in the word problem, making their problem your problem. This may also remind you of a similar scenario you’ve actually been in.

Challenging you to write the problem in the way that you normally speak.

Proving that you understand the situation in the word problem.

Setting yourself up to spend less time being confused and more time solving the word problem, correctly, since now it’s clear what you need to do.

It may help to talk about the problem out loud or to a friend. Try to break it down and explain it verbally like you’re trying to help them understand it. Then re-write the problem exactly that way.

Draw a picture or diagram of what is going on and how you can organize the information so that you can see how it needs to be solved.

Replace the numbers into your revised word problem.

Numberless word problems help us to problem solve without "number grabbing." #fcslearn @WeedenElem — Heather Pounders (@hgpounders) September 24, 2019

Grab four different colored highlighters or markers. You will be highlighting each section below in a different color.

Numbers: You want to know how each of these numbers contribute to you solving the problem. Look for their definitions through units (grams, seconds, gallons, etc.) and other context clues.

Unknowns and Variables: There is always at least one unknown in every word problem. Sometimes they are disguised in the words and phrases, and sometimes they are variables. Ask yourself these questions to find the unknown information in your word problem.

What am I trying to find?

What is the missing number that would complete this problem?

Are their any variables already in the problem (ie. x, m, t, etc.)?

Hidden Operations: The operations you need to use to solve the word problem will be also be hidden in the words and phrases. Use your Pre-Algebraic Translation Guide to help you identify the verbal words and phrases that can be translated into Algebraic expressions.

Separate Steps: Sometimes there is more than one task you need to do in order to completely answer the question.

Ask yourself: Does the word problem include more than one hidden operation, requiring me to complete more than one task in order to fully answer the question?

Do this: Write a quick summary (just a few words) of each task, listing them in order so that you don’t forget a step.


You’re not solving this word problem just to be shuffling some numbers around on a piece of paper. You want to get the correct answer to the question right? Take these steps to ensure you do.

Outline a Strategy:

Name your unknown with a variable (ie. t = time taken to drive to work, measured in minutes)

Bring all your notes and thoughts together and think of the final steps needed to solve the problem. Use formulas, create equations, apply rules etc.

Label Numbers: Once you’ve gotten your answer, label the numbers with units and a short description (ie. t = 17 minutes taken to drive to work).

Double Check the Question and make sure you’ve satisfied all the steps and completely answered the question.

Circle your answer so that you can find it when you need it. It can also help to write you answer as a sentence so you can see that the answer makes sense and that it’s easy to find.


Now as you get more comfortable with doing math word problems, you may not need to go through each step every time. (That’s how math goes, sometimes you can skip a step or two when you know the content well enough. Those steps would be implied .) However, you will want to make sure that the idea of each step is accounted for in your problem solving strategy.

These are the same steps I teach my students. I’m always asking the question “What does that number mean?” I want you, and all other Algebra students, to feel comfortable and empowered to answer word problems, especially now that you have a framework to guide you.

Want to a deeper dive into solving math word problems? Start the Champs at Word Problems Challenge !

Please let me know with a comment what you thought about my 3-step process and if you have a process you prefer for solving word problems. I’d love to learn what else is out there!


Use the Pre-Algebraic Translation Guide to help you understand how verbal words and phrases can help you solve math word problems.

Translate between Verbal Language and Math Language with ease using this guide!

Meet Latreil Jackson

Latreil Jackson is a former math teacher turned math coach and course creator. She's known for her ability to teach math through real life connections and illustrations, as well as mentor students to math confidence. See if you can relate to her math journey in her memoir The Story of My [Math] Life by clicking here . Feel free to send her a message by clicking here .

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