Understanding Mathematics Word Problems

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If you find reading difficult, then irrespective of your mathematics ability, solving word problems is likely to be problematic.

Imagine a poor reader in Year 2 trying to solve the following word problem:

There are several giraffes in the jungle. Four more join them to nibble on the juicy leaves and now there are eight in total. How many giraffes were there in the beginning?

If students don’t have the skills to decode ‘several, ‘giraffes’, ‘four’, ‘join’, ‘eight’, ‘total’ or ‘beginning’, then they have already encountered their first roadblock. They also need to understand maths-specific vocabulary (fewer, the rest, total, remainder, more) and how this vocabulary prompts a particular type of mathematical action. A further complexity can also be the inclusion of complex sentences and irrelevant information (e.g., nibble on the juicy leaves). Finally, even if students manage to decode all the words, they still might struggle to understand what they are required to do. What is the required operation?

When you are providing word problems, your first question must be “What am I testing – mathematic and reasoning ability OR reading ability?”

Schwartz (2023) has analysed the key reasons students struggle with word problems (see the table below) and suggests some evidence-based strategies. Note, that underpinning all of these strategies is to provide the necessary support to help the student read the problem.

When your students struggle with word problems, what are the MAJOR reasons why they are having trouble with the work?

Schema-based instruction

  • Categorise problems into different types, depending on the maths event portrayed.
  • Help students read the problem.
  • Discuss the key vocabulary and the meaning.
  • Represent the mathematical event in a concrete way.
  • Using verbal and visual aids, apply the concept to a variety of similar problems.
  • Explain the event using a number formula.
  • Students use their understanding of the focus concept to solve other similar problems.

Attack strategy

  • Provide students with consistent sets of steps they can use to approach every problem (e.g., read the problem, underline key words, delete irrelevant information, etc.).

Embedded vocabulary

  • Provide maths specific vocabulary instruction.
  • Embed these lessons into schema instructions.
  • Compare and contrast similar terms which have different meanings (e.g., ‘more than’ versus ‘then there were more’).

Numberless problems

  • These problems have the same structure but with the numerical component removed (e.g., Kevin found some bird feathers at the park. On the way home he lost some).
  • The focus is on the change and then brainstorming reasonable and unreasonable numbers (e.g., If he found 5 feathers, he couldn’t lose more than five feathers. The remaining number of feathers must also be less than 5. This is a subtraction type problem).

Teach transference of knowledge

  • Show students different forms of the same problem type. Begin with minor changes and gradually make the changes more complex.
  • Encourage students to find examples of the same type of problem in their own lives.


Schwartz, S. (2023). Why word problems are such a struggle for students – and what teachers can do. The Bulletin, 59, 4-6.