One of the toughest things about teaching fifth grade is definitely the word problems. By fifth grade, a lot of students have become so dependent on using key words that they no longer even read for meaning when they’re solving word problems. However, as fifth grade teachers know, key words only take the students so far.

I have read many articles and blog posts that are adamant against teaching key words, but many of them do not offer an alternative. About three years ago, I created a strategy for teaching my students to solve word problems that does not rely on key words, and I want to share it with you today.

I really want my students to understand what the problem is asking them to do. Keeping this in mind, I teach word problems in terms of what the **situation of the word problem is** versus what key word is in the word problem. Before I taught this strategy, many of my students read word problems in order to find the key words. They did not read to understand what the problem was really telling them or asking them. To combat this, I teach them to think of word problems more as situations. When a student looks at a word problem from a situation standpoint, they are reading for meaning and really understanding what operation is required to solve the problem.

To get students to stop relying on key words and think of situations instead, I do an introductory lesson involving four word problems (shown above). Each of the word problems use the word * total.* However, the word problems each require a different operation. When discussing the word problems, we always have a big discussion about how each of the word problems uses total but they are not all adding or even multiplying. This really gets the students to understand that key words alone cannot always be relied upon.

During this lesson, I stress the importance of really understanding the situation that the word problem is describing to figure out which operation to use. A link to download the printable of the four word problems I use will be available at the end of this post.

After teaching the lesson involving the four word problems, I move right into discussing different situations and how those situations can be translated through a word problem. As a class, we discuss different situations and determine which operation would be used to solve the word problems that involve that situation. Together, we create an anchor chart of different situations under the operation that would be used to solve the situation. We add to this anchor chart as the year progresses and the students are exposed to more word problems with varying situations (For example: taking part of a part when multiplying fractions).

I use the printable chart above to help me generate a list of situations to discuss with students. Many of the fraction situations I don’t introduce until later on in the year once we start fractions.

Speaking of fractions, when we really start digging into multiplication and division of fractions, I always have to revisit the idea of using situations to help solve word problems versus key words. The fifth grade level fraction word problems are really tricky and many of my students revert back to key words because they are overwhelmed. At this point, I typically give students the printable version of the chart for them to refer to on a daily basis as they solve word problems.

Moving away from key words and having students think about operations in terms of situations instead has made a huge difference in the way my students think about and solve word problems. When they are solving a tricky word problem, I always remind them to revisit the situation chart and see which situation matches the word problem. This gets them away from relying solely on key words and builds their confidence with word problems. It also helps them be more successful when solving multi-part word problems.

To read more about how I teach multi-part word problems, click here. You can download the word problems and the printable chart by clicking on the image below.

**What do you think of this strategy?** Do you think this is something your students would benefit from being introduced to? Let me know in the comments.

Jessica Bagley says

This is a great resource! My students are constantly struggling with figuring out which operation to use in a math problem. I will be having my students glue this resource into their notebook for a constant reference. Thank you!

Jennifer Findley says

Mine struggled until I started doing this, too. It did take some work upfront to remind them to refer to the situation. However, it really does help with their conceptual understanding of word problems once they get used to it. I would love to know how it goes with your students.

Heather says

This is just perfectly written and so true. Kids need to know the process and operations not just key words! Thanks for sharing!

Angela says

Do you have more of these type of similarly written different operation problems for sale to use a review on these? I really love this way of teaching!

Jen W says

This is fantastic! I’m a high school special education teacher and word problems are nearly impossible for a few of my kids. I think this will help tremendously. Thanks for sharing.

Carol Bilawchuk says

This is a great approach! We are constatntly trying to find ways to make numeracy an problem solving “real”, considering the situation fits perfectly into our goal. Thank you!

Krystal L. Smith says

Another great one, Jennifer! I am going to try this strategy in my class. I took a course over the summer that stated we should find other methods of teaching students to solve word problems and not solely rely on key words. I aggreed because every year, I have students add numbers that should be multiplied because the problem asked for a total. I have learned overtime that using manipulatives and drawing pictures aid in less errors being made, and the course I took made this apparent. This post and freebie are certainly beneficial. Thank you!

julie batchelor says

thank you. In the past, and currently, I try to get them to draw diagrams. This will help them without having to draw, which many resist.

Temeka says

Thank you! I find myself “teaching” my son …seems like more than the teacher does. This is very helpful!

Lisa Burns says

Jennifer,

It is so refreshing t see a teacher actually thinking about the learning from their student’s point of view. There is so much that we do in our heads and take for granted. We forget to be explicit in out teaching- opening up our thought processes to students. Great job with this!

Jeremiah says

I agree with other posters – this is such a great strategy. I teach third grade, and I’ve found that some of my students don’t even read the problem, they just look for the numbers and a keyword because they don’t truly understand what to do! I have tried focusing on visualizing the problem and really getting students to picture/imagine what is happening in the problem in order to figure out what operation to use. With this strategy, though, I find that some of my struggling learners still have a really hard time identifying the operation, even when using manipulatives to visualize. Do you have any tips for those students who are really struggling to grasp these problem solving strategies?

Teresa Norris says

Hey, is it okay if I adapt your situations for my 6th graders? I want to add determining the amount left to subtraction when taking one amount from another to subtraction and add in the word percent to the situation of finding a part of a whole number and finding a part of a part.