If your students are anything like mine, you will always have students who can “rock” a simple worksheet or flashcard test, but as soon as you give them a context, they suddenly lose that fast fact recall. Many students have a “rote” memory of facts, they have memorized them, they can write them out, they know how to do it when you tell them which numbers and which operation to use. But, what about when you don’t tell them which numbers and which operation… then the students need problem-solving skills!
Every year this topic is a challenge for some of my students, so I spent some extra time this year researching and thinking about how can I explicitly teach something like problem-solving skills….strategies are subjective to people, need to be altered based on the numbers and questions, and some of my students are still struggling with the language of word problems. So, here are some ideas to help you help your students with problem-solving skills.
1. Number Talks
These are easy, fun, and low-prep! Honestly, you could start these tomorrow! Simply put up a math question (something simple, like 15+25) and ask your students how they solved it. Likely, some will say they added 5+5 and ‘carried the one’, then added 1+2 and the carried ‘one’ to get 4, so 40. (Don’t forget to remind the students they are ‘carrying ten’ to regroup, not one! And it isn’t 1+2 but 10+20). Then see if anyone used any other strategies…for example, “I knew 10+20 was thirty, and 5+5 is 10, so 30+10=40” or I knew 25+25 is 50, then I subtracted ten since it is only 15 not 25. Trust me, you will be SHOCKED at the strategies your kids are using. And what better way to but math into student friendly language than to…let the students to the talking!! Your job as teacher is to record their answers on the board as best you can and then after label the strategies with the kids. Read more in the amazing book by, Sherry Parrish, Number Talks K-5. Seriously, one of my fave PD books!
That is an example of one of my (messy) Number Talk charts- see how the student strategies are written just how they tell me, then lafter they all shared we label them together as a class. The whole thing is done in 10 minutes! Talk about a great “activate” activity. The question is from my Number Talks and Journals file in case you want it. I also love this product from my buddy over at “Curly Girl’s Class“, great posters and examples to start number talks with your class! Seriously, just buy her bundle now!
2. Math Congress
This is a little more involved than a number talk- but such great practice! HIGHLY recommend math congress if you haven’t done it yet! You will see growth in your students! Students are given a word problem and a chart paper and some markers. They then work with their partner to solve the problem, showing all their steps and thinking on the chart paper. Then, all the groups share their solutions (in an order determined by the teacher… usually chosen to help show similarities or to encourage kids to catch their own errors) to the class. My kiddos love to come up and use the pointer and explain how they got their answers. Then, we group similar strategies together and label them like the number talks. Here is a great article from the Ontario Ministry of Education about starting out with math congress and other collaborative strategies.
3. Math Journals
Providing students with practice in an independent way allows them to apply the strategies and take risks, figure things out and show what they know. I love journal strips because they are easy, quick and save my copy limit! I provide descriptive feedback on these and sometimes I pull small groups based on errors I see in these journals. They make GREAT assessment as learning pieces (formative assessment) and encourage students to use mathematical language and symbols.
4. Model it
Model, model, model, model and model some more. Students need to see how and when to use different math startegies. If we don’t model new strategies and show how they are used, students may stay in their ‘comfort zone’. I notice this a lot when we start multiplication. It is a new topic for grade 3s in Ontario and we start with making groups, we do dots or tallies and circle them to make groups. Fine for basics…but seriously, are we going to draw dots and circles for big mulitplcaition questions and every time? No! That is not efficient. So we need to teach when stategies fit. I like to use anchor charts with some tips about when to use certain strategies and leave them up for students to refer to.
I created a whole product designed to model and practice key problem-solving strategies. It has been updated for 2020 curriculum and is available in digital or print (and that cute penguin craft is also included as a popsicle in case you are doing this in warmer weather).
5. Practice, practice, feedback, practice some more!
Give your kiddos lots of chances to practice. Practice old strands, practice new things, practice questions with unnecessary information, practice questions like the ones you’ve done as a class and the ones you haven’t. Practice ones from old standardized tests and practice ones that arise from “how many slices of pizza should we order for the class party”. Model the strategies and language you expect from your students and guide them to do it. Students need plenty of chances to explore, try, take risks and review to learn something new and complex like word problems. I used to have all sorts of random activities for my early finishers or to ‘fill 10 minutes’ at the end of our math lesson. But not. any. more. No minute goes wasted in my classroom! Get those brains working and sweating! Looking for something print ready? I created some math problem-solving packets to keep my speedy math kiddos challenged and engaged whenever they had some free time in class. I love that my strong students are constantly pushing themselves to do more and learn more. Check out “Planet Problem Solving” here (note: based on former math curriculum as it ties into EQAO prep)!