Word Problem Wednesday: Reading Comprehension Strategy #1

As a consultant and academic coach, I am asked about word problems almost in every school. Most students can do the math but struggle with the reading comprehension. Whether it's due to the crazy wording of the problem or the fact that students are developing readers at this point in instruction, we have to think about how we help students actually comprehend what they are reading in order to do the math.


Many of you know that I am a HUGE fan of Jan Richardson. One of the things I learned from her was that we have to teach strategic reading comprehension strategies. Her goal was to provide small lessons that students can apply to any text. So, I wondered what would happen if we did this with students. Instead of teaching a memorization strategy, what if we focused on reading word problems the way we read informational text? What if we broke the text down and made sense of it before solving it with models?


In my Problem with Word Problems course, I created 9 reading strategies that can change the way you read word problems. I have labeled them green strategies, yellow strategies and red strategies in the order of complexity with green being the most basic. If you are a member of either one of my Facebook groups, you know I like to designate Wednesdays as word problem days. So, I thought it would be fun to write a quick blog series outlining some of these reading strategies. First up- Math Without Numbers!

I still remember the day I sat in Dr. Ban Har's training, and he said, "Read it without the numbers!" Then, he proceeded to read through a word problem without ever saying a number even though there were numbers in the problem. I don't know why I never thought to read a word problem without the numbers, but it was such an aha moment for me.


I see so many posts about people looking for numberless word problems, but that's not really addressing the issue. That's a place to start, but not the end goal. We have to TEACH our students how to approach a word problem and read it for information before trying to solve the problem.


Here's how it works:

  • Begin the lesson with a rich word problem that has the numbers left as blanks. This can be done in a presentation with animated objects over the numbers or just written on the board with blanks instead of numbers.

  • Read aloud the problem saying words like "some" or a "few" instead of the number words.

  • Ask students to solve the problem using what they know. They may choose to draw a picture or a bar model showing the operation or action of what is happening. The goal is for students to visualize what the problem is actually asking.

  • If needed, substitute the blank numbers for numbers less than 10. Ask students to solve mentally and explain the steps they took to solve.

  • Then, show the numbers in the problem. Again, read the problem using the same language as "some" or "few" instead of the real numbers. Ask students to solve.

  • Share the reading strategy using the reading card and by making an anchor chart. Ask students to try it in the next problem.

  • Here's where it changes: Provide a word problem WITH the numbers in it. Ask students to read it aloud skipping over the numbers by saying words like "some" or "few". This forces students to read for information. This IS the strategy. We want to teach students to continue to read for information even when there are numbers present in the problem.

  • Ask students to again try to solve it first by drawing a visual or model before placing the numbers in it.

  • Finally, ask students to solve the problem.

  • Continue this process throughout the lesson and maybe even during the unit. Reading cards can be printed for students to keep or placed on their desks as a reminder of the strategy.

Seems really basic, right? As I mentioned before, when I heard Dr. Ban Har say to read it without the numbers, it was super obvious. However, I wasn't doing it. I have started every single demo lesson with this strategy and am amused by the number of students who say it can't be solved without numbers. (It happens every time. Every school. Every grade level.) Once we go through the strategy, students see they don't get an answer without the numbers, but they do get a process.


I hope you will try this strategy out and let me know how it goes! Feel free to download the card and try it with your students. Post a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know how it goes!


If you are interested in seeing other ways I solve word problems, don't forget to check out my Singapore Math Video Library with examples!

Have a great word problem Wednesday!


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