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By Ian GardnerLecturer University College Northampton

Encourage children to solve mathematical word problems

The ability to apply knowledge and skills lies at the heart of mathematical problem solving. Children need opportunities to reason, communicate their ideas, and work towards generalising their findings. The solving of word problems is complex because of the language demands of the question, the understanding of the context, the choice of operation(s), and the interpretation of the answer in the appropriate form.

The activities which follow collectively draw on the above features of such investigation. It is important to make children aware of these processes by making overt reference to each stage.

Getting started

  • Consider sharing the ‘language of mathematics’ as a whole class using loop cards. Look at ‘What is the answer?’ worksheet. This activity sheet is a set of cards featuring questions, which form a chain. For example, an answer is featured at the top of the card, which doesn’t relate to the question posed at the bottom of the card.
  • Share the cards across the class. One approach is to give pairs of children a card each, allowing time for the question (on the bottom line of each card) to be considered. You can then start by reading out one of the questions for the children to answer. The pair with the same question on their card as you should share their thoughts on the answer, then the whole class can contribute their ideas.
  • When the correct answer is given, the pair with the answer on the top of their card proceed with the game by reading out the question they have at the bottom of their card.
  • Modify the format with harder or easier questions using a ‘traffic-light’ colour code, to help target questions to differing abilities. Or give groups of children more than one card.
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