Tips on Writing Math Word Problems That Interest Students
Student motivation can be a challenge when teaching them how to solve math word problems. A major culprit can be the word problem itself.
In general, students often find word problems to be uninteresting and sometimes unrealistic. They often feature unexciting topics, such as buying enough dog food for the number of dogs in a kennel, saving enough money to buy a new backpack for school, buying enough milk for summer camp, and so on. While the goal is to present generic problems so that the largest number of students can focus on math problem-solving aspects, students may not be interested in solving them and thus, not fully engage in solving the problems.
Some students may be put off by the vocabulary; they may not know the definitions for some words or have a limited understanding of the concepts, such as word problems that incorporate scientific terms, contextual nouns, and verbs (e.g., loading corn onto an elevator in a silo); geographic-specific terms (e.g., rafting down rapids or ice fishing in Northern Michigan); and so on. This becomes a problem if students get frustrated when they are unable to read for understanding and just quit reading.
Students also may find little relevance in the problems. For example, a high school student may not care about how much money sixth graders John and Elmore made at their lemonade stand; a student who lives in a rural area may not empathize with the plight of Sophia who needs to add sufficient money to her metro card to get to her destination three stops away.
Motivating students who have difficulty solving math word problems may be even more challenging given that they may avoid problems altogether to protect themselves from failure.
Traditional motivational strategies can help students succeed at solving whatever problems they are given. However, teachers may want to increase student motivation; one strategy is to write story problems that include student interests.
Substitute Nouns in Word Problems
At a basic level, teachers can change the word problem by substituting actual student names and interests. Here’s an example of a standard one-step word problem from Solve It! Teaching Mathematical Problem Solving in Inclusive Classrooms Grades 5–6:
- José and Nancy are selling greeting cards to raise money for the school camping trip. Together they sold cards totaling $88.50. Nancy sold $67.00 worth of cards. How much money did José make selling cards?
Let’s say that the sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Clark, wants to personalize the problem for her students. This week marks the beginning of Girl Scout cookie sales. Two of her students, Camilla and Chloe, are very active in Girl Scout activities and have gotten the rest of the class excited about two new cookie flavors this year. Ms. Clark decides to change the problem to reflect their interest.
- Example 1 (general interest in classmates): Camilla and Chloe are selling Girl Scout cookies. Together they sold cookies totaling $88.50. Camilla sold $67.00 worth of cookies. How much money did Chloe make selling cookies?
- Example 2 (personalizing the problem between classmates): Camilla and Chloe are in competition to sell the most Girl Scout cookies. Together they sold $98.00 worth of cookies. Camilla sold $49.00 worth of cookies. How much money did Chloe make selling cookies? Which girl won the competition?
- Example 3 (engaging students to give their opinion about the problem faced by their classmates): Camilla and Chloe are selling Girl Scout cookies. They are excited about two new flavors, Double Chocolate Brownie and Thin Banana Swirl Oatmeal Crunchies. Together they sold $98.25 worth of these new cookie flavors. They sold $31.25 worth of the banana swirl cookies. How much did they sell of the brownie cookies? Which cookie do you think was the most popular?
Note, that in the first example, the changes are basically replacements. In the second and third examples, Ms. Clark introduces a little more interest by suggesting that the girls are in competition to sell the most cookies (which they are) or by giving students a chance to weigh in on which cookie flavor they would choose.
If teachers do not want to use student names, they can substitute popular celebrities and musicians. For example, they might change the pronouns to current fan favorites such as:
- Superheroes. Spiderman’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, is trapped on the top floor of a burning building. The burning building is 75 feet tall. Spiderman has scaled 45 feet. How many more feet does he have to scale before he can save Gwen?
- Rappers. Kendrick Lamar earned $58 million total last year in song sales and concert tickets. Halfway through this year he has made one-half of last year’s total. How much more money does he need to make this year to be even with last year’s total?
- Pro athletes. Steph Curry ranks third among NBA players by total career regular-season three-point field goals made with 2,483. Second-place NBA player Reggie Miller has a career high of 2,560 regular-season three-point field goals. What is the minimum number of goals Steph will need to make to pass Reggie and move into second place?
Other examples of high-interest topics that can be tapped when rewriting math word problems include:
- Television programs and movies
- School events
- Video games
Enlist Students in Writing High-Interest Math Word Problems
Another instructional strategy is to have students generate math word problems. Pair students or form small groups of three to four students and have them write a math word problem that includes group members. Set norms and rules to ensure that topics are appropriate and that all feelings are respected; in other words, no person’s feelings get hurt while writing the problem.
A variation of this strategy is to have one student group write a problem for another student group. In this scenario, you might want to add a few criteria, such as use all group members in the story problem, make the story topic something that at least one group member likes (e.g., sports, music), and so on.
Another variation might be to use Group Story Writing (for a description of this instructional technique, see the Exceptional Innovations blog at https://www.exinn.net/group-story-writing-helps-students/). Introduce the first sentence and then have individual students add to the problem. Scribe the problem as it is being developed. Ask students to solve the problem. Then begin writing a new group story problem.
Always leave time for students to solve these problems and share the steps they used in solving them.
Tips for Rewriting Math Word Problems
- Review the number of steps in a problem and make sure the rewritten problem matches.
- Make sure all students in the class are acknowledged (this can be done over time as needed). However, be sensitive to the types of activities or situations in which you put students. For example, if you know that a student is very shy—or worse, the victim of bullying—consider including the student with a group of supportive students in the problem.
- Do not embarrass students in the story retelling. Try not to pair students who are enemies or who are in an emotional relationship. For example, do not pair students together who have just broken up their relationship or who have just been disciplined for fighting. Do not have students perform age-inappropriate tasks in the stories. Also, be careful not to exploit sensitive topics. For example, Jay may not want to be the star of a word problem that adds up the number of referrals to the office for acting-out behavior.
- Ask students for activity ideas to be included in math word problems. Ask them if they are experiencing any real problems that might be solved in a math word problem (e.g., saving enough money to see the latest superhero movie with friends).
- Make sure that students know the vocabulary used in the problems. Consider making a list of the vocabulary words in the problems and asking students to match definitions with the terms. Or ask students to describe the terms prior to solving the problems.
- Check the reading level of the problem. Make sure the problem is written at an easy reading level for students.
- Think about whether the problem can be visualized easily. Ask, “Can students draw the problem?” “Will it be easy for them to put the problem into their own words?”
Find Sample Math Word Problems to Rewrite
When rewriting math word problems, it is important to know the number of steps required to solve the problem to ensure that those assigned to students are appropriate. The Solve It! third edition and autism versions (https://www.exinn.net/job-related-social-skills/) both include a variety of additional one-, two- and three-step math word problems. Use these problems as a basis for rewriting the story to fit students’ interests.