Teaching Math with Story Problems, Not Word Problems

Cover for blog post Teaching Math With Story Problems showing printed math word problems.

Do you use word problems to teach your children math?  They can be one of your most powerful teaching tools.  But, only if we think of them as story problems, not word problems. So, what are math story problems?

‘Story problems’ is really another way to say math word problems, but it should totally change the way we look at them.  When we say ‘word problem’, then we focus on looking for specific words to tell us what we should do to solve the problem.  And this really can lead children to misinterpret the whole problem.

But, if we change the name to ‘story problems’, then we think about zooming out and seeing the problem as a whole story.  We are able to think about the big picture and understand how all the information in the problem relates to each other.  This is much more likely to lead children to solve the problem correctly.

But, when and how should we use math story problems?  Read on to find out!

Pinnable cover for blog post Teaching Math With Story Problems showing printed math word problems.

(Note: This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. Click here to read our full disclosure.)

When Should You Use Math Story Problems?

To introduce a new concept: Story problems are a great way to help children understand why they are learning a math concept right away.  As they learn the concept, they have a real life scenario to attach the concept to.

For example, this week, we have been introducing fractions in our math program.  Starting with a story about baking a pie or a pan of brownies and then dividing it up depending on how many people are going to be eating is a great way to introduce the idea of fractions.  In fact, The Doorbell Rang, is a great book for doing this.

Not that you need a book to introduce a story problem!  You can just share the story verbally or write it on a whiteboard.

Math story problem written on whiteboard.

After you have taught a math concept: Story problems are also great to reinforce new math concepts that you have been targeting.

For example, if you have been working on some number sense skills such as Make 10, then you can follow-up that work with some problems that involve making ten.

Example:  Jasen needs 10 matchbox cars to fill his box.  He already has 5.  How many more does he need to fill the box?

Metal box with five matchboc cars and room for more.

To practice concepts: Story problems can be used to review previously taught concepts to keep them fresh.

For example, if your child has learned about part-part-whole circles, you can give her problems to practice applying this concept.  Even on days when you aren’t specifically targeting that concept.

Example:  Maggie has 23 flowers.  12 of the flowers have wilted.  How many flowers still look good?  Your child can think about which number is the whole and what number is the part.  She can then see where the answer needs to go.

View from above of a vase with 10 purple tulips.

During real life: The best time to practice story problems is when they pop up in real life!  Be on the lookout for when a situation relates well to what you have been learning in math.  Then, help your child think about how to solve the real life problem.  This discourages that question children often have of “when will I ever use this math stuff?”

Bag of flour and measuring cup on a counter.
The recipe calls for 3 cups of flour. How many times will you need to fill a 1/2 cup measuring cup to add the flour to the recipe?

How to Present Math Story Problems

So how do we present the story problems to our children?

Read out loud: I often start by reading a problem out loud and my children write down the information that they feel they need.  I usually repeat the problem as many times as needed until they feel comfortable with what they need to do.

The reason we start this way, is it allows them to start to picture the story in their head without having to also read along.  However, your children may prefer to start in the following way.

Read out loud while child reads along: It may be easier for you to have your child read along while you say the problem out loud.  In this case, if you are making up the problem (see below for a link to FREE templates), you will need to write the problem on a white board, paper, etc. ahead of time.  Read through the problem together as many times as needed until your child starts to create a picture of the story in her head.

Child reads problem to self: The goal is for your child to be able to read the problem and then solve it on her own.  So once your child is doing well with the above methods.  Encourage your child to read problems independently, picture the story, and then solve the problem.

How to Solve the Math Story Problem

So now that your child has the problem, how do you guide them through solving the problem?

Don’t provide much guidance: First, allow your child to think about how he is going to solve the problem on his own.

Make sure that whatever materials you normally use for math are available to your child.  These might include an abacus, tiles, a number path or line, and definitely a white board and marker.  You may want to gently indicate that he may want to use some of them.  But, typically you don’t want to tell him a specific material to use.

Printed problem, equation on white board, abacus showing equation and tiles arranged to show problem.

You can also ask really open-ended questions at this point such as “How could you figure it our?” or “How can you show what is going on in this story?”.

The reason we want to stay so hands off at first is because if we show our children  the “right way” to solve the problem, then they may not really understand why they are doing what they are doing.  The next time they approach a similar problem that is worded differently, they may try to do the same thing and it may not be appropriate for that problem.

We don’t want them just to grab numbers and then do something with them that you have shown them in the past.  We really want them to think about the story and conceptualize it in their heads.

They may do this by working with some tiles, moving beads on their abacus, and/or drawing a picture on the whiteboard.  For example, to solve the problem above about the matchbox cars, they might draw a box with 10 sections on the whiteboard, color in five and then count how many are left.  Or they may grab a ten frame, place tiles in five of the boxes and then count how many boxes are empty.  Or they may find a completely different way to work out the problem!

Printed ten frame showing 5 cubes in five of the squares and the other 5 squares empty.

Write Equations: After your child has conceptualized the problem and figured out the correct answer, it is time to write the equations to show what they did.  It is important to leave this part until after they have their answer unless they themselves initiate writing equations as part of their solution.

Note: if they start writing equations as part of their solution, but it is leading them down the wrong track, stop them and encourage them to conceptualize the problem with manipulatives or drawing instead.

Encourage them to write an equation for how they solved the problem.  There may be more than one correct way to write the equation.  For the matchbox car example, they may write 10 – 5 = ? OR they may see it as 5 + ? = 10.  Either way is fine.

Printed word problem on small piece of paper and related equation written on white board.

If they are unable to write an equation, then talk them through each part while you write it.  Or as you talk through each part, they can write it down with your help.

Types of Math Story Problems

As you work math story problems into your math lessons, you will want to make sure that you are varying the ways they are worded.  Then, your children will be able to fully develop their skills and understand any kind of problem that comes their way.

Cognitively Guided Instruction, which is a student-centered approach to teaching math, groups different word problems into types.  Check out our post 14 Types of Math Story Problems Your Child Should Know to learn each of the different types.  Then, download our FREE Math Story Problem Templates so that you can make sure to practice a variety of word problems with your children.

Cover for blog post 14 Types of Math Story Problems showing printable math story problem templates.

What If Your Child Gets Stuck?

Sometimes we follow these wonderful plans and our children still just don’t seem to get it!  So what do we do?  We start with Numberless Story Problems.  Not sure, what those are?  Click below and read more!

Cover for post Numberless Math Story Problems with sample math problem and drawing of tree and birds that corresponds with math problem.

So tell me, how do you use math story problems with your children?  What challenges do you run into?

Resource Library

Year round graphic for pop up form

Subscribe and receive access to our library of FREE printables and never miss a post.

Powered by ConvertKit