Teaching Students How to Write Math Problems

The only thing more valuable to a developing mathematician than practicing solving word problems is writing them. Of course, learning how to solve word problems efficiently, accurately, and flexibly are crucial in building students’ math skills. They need to learn how to filter out unnecessary details, plan and organize their steps, and make sure their procedures are accurate. This is a lot to handle at once, and it’s all critical. However, it isn’t enough to give students the depth of understanding that they need to truly become math experts.

Why Students Should Be Writing Their Own Problems

Knowing how to best solve word problems is only one side of the coin. In order to fully make sense of math concepts, students need to experience the process of creating word problems themselves. This may come as a surprise. Certainly, creating a scenario and coming up with a related task is easier than actually solving that task, right? It depends. Writing a word problem that requires simple addition is much easier than a problem with more complex procedures and operations. The former would be appropriate for lower grades that are just getting used to working with word problems.

Many students find it challenging to create problems for more complex concepts. For example, lots of students have difficulty coming up with situations that accurately represent the multiplication or division of fractions. This is quite an advanced concept that can be hard to contextualize in real life. Most students, with enough practice, can recognize when they need to multiply and when they need to divide fractions in a word problem. However, actually envisioning a scenario to represent the operation is much more challenging. When students engage in productive struggles that help them make sense of difficult concepts like this one, they begin to understand so much more than just procedures.

How to Facilitate Word Problem Creation For Students

All students can write word problems. Depending on grade level and readiness, the complexity of the word problems we ask our students to write will vary. Students should have plenty of exposure to and practice with solving word problems before they are expected to write them. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin having students practice this skill:

Give them a model

Students always do better with practicing new skills when they have an example. When they first start writing their own problems, give them a model on which to base their word problems. As they get more practice, they can begin to deviate from the model and get creative. Giving them a model to start will allow them to have a focus and a starting point.

Start small

Don’t expect students to be able to automatically write word problems that are as complex as those they are solving. These are two very different processes. Even if you have a student who excels in solving complex problems, she should still start out with more straightforward problem-writing tasks, like single-operation, before attempting to write more advanced word problems. As she gets more comfortable, you can gradually increase the rigor and difficulty.

Use their word problems in your instruction

There’s nothing more exciting to a teacher than helping students gain valuable skills through activities that reduce the teacher’s workload! Here’s a great opportunity to allow students to work together, feel pride in their work, and lighten your load: have students trade word problems and solve each other’s. You will want to preview students’ word problems beforehand, but this is a great way to hold students accountable. Having them solve each other’s word problems is a great way to empower them and give them some ownership over their learning! You may want to do this anonymously for students who may feel self-conscious. Some students feel anxiety when it comes to sharing their work with classmates.

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