Mathematics Word Problems – What If You Asked the Question First?

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Are you a math teacher?  Are you a parent of a child or teen who is taking a mathematics course?  If yes to either question, then I’m sure you’ve seen students struggle with word problems.  It’s so frustrating to watch and we want so badly to help them.

A perennial complaint of mathematics teachers is that students are unable to cope with word problems. This inability to deal with such problems often becomes a major stumbling block to success in mathematics courses (Nolan 1984). National trends in mathematics problem-solving, as measured by the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, indicate that students, even 17-year-olds, have difficulty solving word problems (Dossey et al. 1988).

When asked, many students who have trouble with word problems say that

a) they cannot decide what is important in the problem and what is not,
b) they cannot determine which information in the problem will help them and which information is just put in there as a distractor, and/or
c) they cannot figure out how to compute the solution once they have figured out what the problem is.

As Kresse (1984, 598) cited: “Research using “students not solving (word) problems correctly” indicated 95% of the sixth graders tested could read all the words correctly, 98% knew the situation the problem was discussing, 92% knew what the problems was asking you to find, yet only 36% knew how to work the problem (Knifong and Holtron, 1977).”

There are many reasons why students have this difficulty, including semantic, syntactic, contextual, and structural characteristics (Silver and Thompson 1984). One possible approach to overcoming some of these difficulties is to “rewrite” the problems so that the question appears first, instead of last.

Teachers of reading often ask questions of students before having them read–so that the students will know what to look for, and thereby have better comprehension. It makes sense that this same strategy will also enhance mathematics students’ comprehension of word problems. Teachers in the mathematics classroom are not expected to be reading teachers, but it behooves us to draw on strategies that have been found beneficial by reading teachers in our quest to enable students to solve word problems correctly–and without the dread so many of them feel.

So…it is worth a try the next time you observe a young person who is mixed up about what to do next when confronted with a word problem in his/her mathematics classroom.  Encourage the student to jump to the question first, then come back to the beginning of the problem and use that knowledge to determine what to do.

You’ll observe success – and will feel your own relief – and theirs!


Dossey, John A.; Mullis, Ina V. S.; Lindquist, Mary M.; & Chambers, Donald L. The mathematics report card: Are we measuring up? Trends and achievement based on the 1986 National Assessment. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1988.
Kresse, Elaine Campbell. “Using Reading As a Thinking Process to Solve Math Story Problems,” Journal of Reading 27, (1984): 598-601.
Nolan, James F. “Reading in the Content Area of Mathematics.” In M. DuPuis (Ed.), Reading in the Content Areas: Research for Teachers (pp. 28-41). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1984.
Silver, Edward A. & Thompson, Alba G. “Research Perspectives on Problem Solving in Elementary School Mathematics.” The Elementary School Journal 84, (May 1984): 529-545.
Stiff, Leo V. “Understanding Word Problems.” Mathematics Teacher 79, (March 1986): 163-165, 215.

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