Math Word Problems: Take Away the Anxiety

A flower garden in the park has a total of 80 daisies. 30% of the daisies are red, ¼ are yellow, 2/5 are purple and 5% are pink. How many of each color flower are in the garden?

Do you find yourself immediately calculating 30% of 80? Did you start to draw a picture of daisies in a garden? Or did you just say “forget it?” Do problems like this make you anxious, or are you excited to solve the challenge?

Depending on our personal neurodevelopmental strengths and weaknesses, each of us may have a different reaction to math problems and may approach solving these kinds of problems differently.

So do our students! Some have profiles that lend themselves well to this kind of task. Other students read the problem and have no idea where to start.

Here are a few strategies that may help:

  • Teach students to read for meaning, rather than searching for key words, when trying to identify the operation to use for a math word problem. For example, a student who can read a problem and restate it in his own words to help him realize that he’s been asked to combine amounts or add, will have a deeper understanding than a student who looks only for a key word or phrase in the sentence (e.g., ‘total,’ ‘how many,’ etc.) to indicate what operation to use.
  • Teach students about strategies they can use for organizing a word problem before attempting calculations, for example, making a graphic chart that shows the important information, using a personalized checklist of steps, etc.
  • Set up a ‘math mentor’ for the student. This person may be a mathematics teacher, or a professional in the community who uses math in his/her work, e.g., a surveyor, an architect, a research scientist, an accountant, etc.
  • Build students’ knowledge of when to apply rules and how rules are relevant using real life situations. For example, to teach the rules for rounding numbers, use items from a restaurant menu, “for sale” notices from classified ads, mileage on a map, etc. Have students talk about when it would be appropriate to use rounded numbers, and when the exact figure would be needed.
  • Have students categorize related math problems together as variations of a larger rule (e.g., the steps for 4/5 = __%, and the steps for 80% = _/_ are different, but the steps fall within the larger rule for converting fractions to percentages).
  • Help students see how patterns and rules reflect mathematical concepts. For example, first explain that the rules for regrouping rise from the concept of place value, then show the role regrouping plays in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. This allows students to focus on the reasoning behind the rules. Moreover, instead of memorizing eight different sets of rules, students memorize two processes (borrowing and carrying) with variations.
  • Have students use different representations to describe the same situation. For example, demonstrate how something can be shown using a table, a graph, written description, etc.

We also found some really cool websites that offer activities to help students practice math concepts and skills.

What sites have you found that are fun and engaging places to practice? Let’s talk more about strategies and web sites in the comments section below!

3 thoughts on “Math Word Problems: Take Away the Anxiety

  1. Hello All kinds of Minds,

    Great post! You will be pleased to hear about a brand new site:: a games-based learning site focusing on maths.

    Mangahigh’s games are designed with math at their core and feature commercial-quality gameplay, rewarding students with achievements that celebrate their progress. Through gameplay, Mangahigh aims to provoke students to explore sophisticated math concepts and reinforce skills through repetition. The games are supported by Prodigi, the world’s first adaptive math learning engine, and endorsed by well-known UK mathematician Marcus du Sautoy.

    I have copied and pasted some links below with related anchor text so all can have a look at the free games and prodigi (as there are algebra, geometry… GREAT fun)

    Free Math Games. No registration required.
    Save Our Dumb Planet – Algebra Game
    Flower Power Number Games!
    Pyramid Panic Geometry Games!
    Bidmas Blaster Number Games!
    Ice Ice Maybe Algebra Games!
    Online Math Games!

  2. Dear AKOM,, ambitious new games-based math learning site, launches

    UK-based features free math games that go beyond mental arithmetic and help kids to enjoy practicing quadratic equations and trigonometry. The site claims to have developed the most sophisticated math games yet seen on the Internet, and both students and teachers are likely to enjoy playing Pyramid Panic (geometry) and Flower Power (fractions ordering). Endorsed by well-known UK mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, the site also features Prodigi, an intriguing application that teaches math using worked examples. At launch, Prodigi does not cover 100% of the curriculum but it does offer many thousands of questions already.

    The challenge for educators has been to find games that teach academic concepts in an entertaining way. looks to have been successful in balancing these two imperatives, and the games are ‘true’ math games in that the math is always intrinsic to the gameplay. The games also have academic achievements linked in to them. That is to say, if a student demonstrates mastery of a particular skill during gameplay (for example calculating the perimeter of a kite in Pyramid Panic), that achievement is then posted on their profile.

    I can see that students would enjoy playing these games in class or as homework. Perhaps some of them might even play of their own accord?

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