Word Problems in Math Class: An Important Oxymoron

Apr 11, 2022

Why are word problems important in elementary school math?  What skills does solving word problems help students develop?  How do word problems benefit my math student? These are questions many of us ask as we help math students solve word problems.  After all, this is math class, not reading class; why are we incorporating reading a story into a math problem?  This is an especially relevant question when the words of a story problem blur together, and it seems to ask a ridiculous question such as, “If Joe eats 5 pancakes every day for a month and uses an entire quart of maple syrup, how many pizzas did Susie eat in January?” Word problems in math are extremely valuable for multiple reasons and help students develop skills in both math and other subject areas.

1. Word problems help students to identify relevant information and to eliminate information that is not important or relevant to the problem at hand.  “Weeding out” irrelevant information not only brings clarity to the actual math task at hand, but it also provides students practice with the critical thinking and life skill of differentiating between important information we need to use in a particular situation and information we can disregard or set aside in order to not confuse the situation at hand.

2. Solving word problems helps students develop perseverance.  Word problems require higher level thinking skills and take students longer to solve.  Students may need to think outside the box and try multiple strategies to solve the problem.  When they make multiple attempts at a problem, but keep persisting until they solve the problem, they develop perseverance and the ability to work through a more complicated, multiple step problem.  And when they experience success, they become more confident learners who are motivated to continue solving higher level math problems.

3. Word problems show students the real world value and application of what they are learning and the skills they are practicing in math.  Learning becomes more valuable when we see the relevance.  Word problems bring math to life so that an equation isn’t just an equation – it becomes a real world situation.  Students come to see how ratios aren’t just about solving for x compared to y, but about determining how many potato chips compared to water bottles we need to stock the concession stand with in order to maximize our sales at the baseball game.  When a problem relates to real life, students are motivated to work through it and want to know the answer!

4. Finally, word problems help teachers accurately assess student’s understanding of math concepts.  By solving a word problem, students demonstrate their level of understanding of a concept.  They prove that they can apply what they learned to a different problem; they haven’t simply memorized a formula.  This accurate assessment allows teachers to cater their instruction to the needs of students. When we see word problems as a valuable tool for both learning and assessment, we want to incorporate them into students’ math curriculum in order to provide a well rounded math education!

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Diane Stum loves learning and considers herself a life-long student.  As a homeschool mom, she is surprised by how much she learns as she teaches her own children.  One of her favorite parts of teaching is seeing the moment when something clicks for a student who has been struggling through a problem. Diane's background is in elementary education as she holds a B.S in elementary education, grades K-6, from Penn State University. She has experience teaching children from preschool to middle school in traditional classrooms as well as homeschool group classes and private tutoring.  As an elementary educator, she is trained in all content areas.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.