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Why Some Kids Struggle With Math Word Problems

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

At a Glance

  • If kids have trouble with math word problems, it doesn’t mean they’re bad at math.

  • Solving word problems involves more than just doing calculations.

  • Kids have to read and focus to solve a word problem in math, too.

Word problems in math can be tricky. To get the right answer, your child has 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 lead to difficulty.

If your child seems to be good at math but has trouble with word problems, here are possible reasons why—and ways you can help.

Trouble With Reading

To solve word problems, kids have to read well. One reason kids struggle is because they have trouble with reading in general.

How do you know if this is a trouble spot? Try reading a word problem to your child. If your child gets the correct answer when you read it aloud, but not when reading the problem on their own, it could be a challenge with reading.

How you can help: Ask your child’s teacher to read word problems out loud for classwork and tests. This simple change can help your child keep learning math even if reading is a challenge. (You may want to ask the school about technology that can read problems aloud, too.)

There are also ways to help your child improve reading skills at home.

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 students figure out what they need to do to solve the problem. Kids must translate these phrases into what teachers call “a number sentence.”

Here’s an example of a word problem and its corresponding number sentence:

Word problem: “Sue has two pencils. She spends one hour at the store and buys three more pencils. How many pencils does Sue have in all?”

Number sentence: “2 + 3 = ____.”

Some kids can picture a number sentence like this one in their heads. Others need to write it down. Either way, there’s a lot to think about before getting to the point where you can calculate that the answer is 5.

To turn a word problem into a number sentence, kids need to understand the language and concepts of math. For example, they need to know that the phrase “How many pencils in all?” means adding together the two groups of pencils.

Some kids have a lot of trouble with this skill. That’s why a child who can easily calculate 2 + 3 = 5 might struggle with a word problem using the same calculation.

How you can help: Ask the teacher to help you make index cards with phrases that are commonly used in word problems. For example, one index card might show “in all” next to the “+” sign. Another card might show “all together” next to the “+” sign.

When your child works on math homework, encourage your child to get into the habit of matching an index card to each phrase in a word problem.

You can also ask kids to close their eyes and try to picture what’s happening in the problem: “Imagine the first group of pencils joining together with the second group and forming one large group.”

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.

Trouble With Focus and Self-Control

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

Kids may get distracted by the words or get lost in their heads. This can lead to confusion with the math. Other kids struggle with self-control and rush through the problem. They may skip important parts or make simple calculation mistakes.

Extra information in word problems can trip kids up, too. Some details aren’t needed to solve the problem. For example, kids don’t need to know that Sue spent one hour in the store to know how many pencils she has. Kids need to learn to weed out this information.

How you can help: Ask your child to read through the problem once. Then, have your child read it again, circling the important words and phrases. This is called active reading. It can  help your child stay focused and avoid rushing.

Here’s another strategy. Use blank pieces of paper to cover all the problems except the one your child is doing. You can also try making a list of things for your child to double-check. The teacher may have more strategies, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Once you’ve tried a few of these suggestions, you might have an idea why your child is struggling with math word problems. Set up a meeting to  talk with the teacher about your concerns. Together, you can make a plan to help your child get better at solving word problems.

Key Takeaways

  • Trouble reading can make it hard to solve math word problems.

  • Using index cards can help kids match phrases to different math operations.

  • Encourage your child to circle key words and phrases in a problem to stay focused.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom