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Why some kids struggle with math word problems

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

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Word problems in math can be tricky. To get the right answer, kids have to be able to read the words, figure out what math operation to use, and then do the calculations correctly. A breakdown in any of these skills can cause trouble.

If kids seem to be good at math but struggle with word problems, here are possible reasons why:

Trouble with reading: To solve word problems, kids have to read well. So even if they usually do well with math, reading difficulties can make word problems hard.

Trouble understanding math phrases and concepts: Even if kids are strong readers, they may have trouble picking up on clues in word problems. These clues are phrases that help kids figure out what they need to do to solve the problem, like adding or subtracting. Kids then have to translate these phrases into a number sentence, like “two plus three equals five.”

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Trouble with focus and self-control: Kids may get distracted by the words or get lost in their heads. Other kids struggle with self-control and rush through the problem. They may skip important parts or make simple calculation mistakes.

Dive deeper

Reading and word problems

How do you know if reading is the cause of kids’ struggle with word problems? Try reading the word problem aloud. If kids get the correct answer when the problem is read aloud, but not when reading the problem on their own, it could be a challenge with reading .

For families: Read more about how you can improve kids’ reading skills at home .

For educators: Learn about technology that can read problems aloud .

Math concepts and word problems

To turn a word problem into a number sentence, kids need to understand the language and concepts of math. 

Think about this problem: “Trevor has two pencils. He buys three more pencils. How many pencils does he have in all?” Kids need to know that the phrase “in all” means adding together the two groups of pencils.

Some kids may have a hard time picturing this. You can make it more concrete by using coins, toothpicks, or other objects. Use them to form the two small groups, and then combine them into one group.

Educators: Read more about evidence-based math instruction .

Focus and word problems

Some kids can read a word problem and explain how it should be solved, but still get the wrong answer. Why? One reason could be trouble with focus and self-control.

Extra information in word problems can trip kids up. Some details just aren’t needed. Kids need to learn to weed out this information.

Once you’ve tried a few of these suggestions, you might have an idea why kids are struggling with math word problems. 

Parents and caregivers: Find out how to talk with your child’s teacher about your math concerns .

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