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How to Teach Math Word Problems – CUBES Math Strategy

Discover the power of the CUBES math strategy for understanding word problems! This step-by-step approach will boost comprehension and problem-solving skills and help students really understand story problems.

Are your students struggling to tackle word problems? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Word problems can be overwhelming, especially for struggling students. But no worries, the CUBES math strategy is here to save the day!

CUBES math strategy for word problems
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Math Word Problems

Word problems are a staple in math lessons for a reason – they reflect real-life situations. Sure, some problems may seem a bit ridiculous (like buying 60 watermelons – big eye roll here), but others offer valuable and meaningful learning opportunities.

The challenge lies in the variety and complexity of word problems. Upper elementary students run into super challenging multi-step problems that can leave them scratching their heads.

As a teacher, it’s essential to differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of all learners.

That’s where the CUBES math strategy comes in. By using this strategy, you can provide struggling students with a concrete step-by-step process to approach word problems. Say goodbye to frustration and hello to success!

Plus, this method slows students down and focuses their attention on one aspect of the problem at a time.

Many students rush through their work without really taking the time to read the problems and digest the meaning. The CUBES strategy helps students pause, reflect, and truly engage with the problem, leading to a deeper understanding and focus.

Incorporating the CUBES math strategy is easy.

Start by presenting the lesson to the whole class, but keep a close eye on your strugglers. Pull them into a small group to give them the extra support they need before they become overwhelmed by the assignment.

The greater the struggle, the smaller the group – at least, that’s the rule I try to follow.

CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy

For the small group instruction, provide students with CUBES reference cards. These cards outline the essential steps of the CUBES strategy and provide a handy reminder throughout problem-solving sessions. You can find these cards in the CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy Kit – a must-have resource for teaching word problems effectively.
CUBES math word problems mini reference cards for students
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I love these CUBES math strategy posters to teach concrete steps and strategies to my students – especially my struggling students. Without concrete steps, I’ve found that strugglers have no idea about solving story problems, so they give up – and that’s exactly what we DON’T want them to do! All of those words are scary and overwhelming. This step-by-step strategy teaches students how to deal with all that information.

Step 1:  Read the problem out loud.

Read the problem aloud. Then reread it, emphasizing comprehension.

Students need to read or hear the problem multiple times before they even pick up a pencil to start. They need to visualize – what’s happening in the problem?

Here’s the clincher – don’t let them off the hook!  Make them state out loud what they understand from the problem.

Keep in mind that sometimes students can’t explain the problem because they genuinely don’t understand what is happening.

My low readers often don’t digest the information as they read.

Word problems call on many skills: comprehension, sorting out needed and unneeded information, deciding on the operation, etc.

It’s hard for students to organize their thoughts at this point – but that’s exactly what we need them to do. And that’s precisely why they must read and reread the problem until they understand what’s happening.

I constantly tell my students that I, personally, have to read word problems several times before I understand them. My strugglers often don’t even want to read the problem once.

Break the problem down sentence by sentence if needed.

Allow think time so they can fully understand the problem and the steps.

*Unfortunately, that’s the problem for us as teachers. All the reading and discussion takes time – very valuable time.  It also takes practice and patience. 

I often adjust or differentiate assignments by giving my struggling crew fewer problems to complete.

Focus on a few problems done correctly rather than several incorrect ones rushed through.

Step 2:  Circle the numbers AND LABELS!

Moving on to step two, I’ve learned that labels play a crucial role in comprehension. For that reason, I instruct my students to circle the numbers AND the labels at the same time. That saves time at the end when they need to label their answer.


Step 3:  Underline the question

Step three is all about underlining the question and making sure students truly understand it. Challenge them to rephrase the question in their own words. This step is vital for selecting the correct operation and solving the problem effectively.

You may need to backtrack and reread the problem again, emphasizing the question.

That’s when we have the part versus the whole discussion. What information are we given?  Do we have part of something, or is it a whole/total amount?

If a student truly doesn’t know what he’s looking for, they can’t choose the correct operation needed to solve the problem. A discussion needs to continue for understanding.

Step 4:  Box the keywords

Be careful with keywords in word problems – they can be tricky! Some keywords have multiple meanings and can represent different operations. To solve the problem correctly, students must understand the context.

It’s normal for students to ask for hints and clues when identifying the necessary operation(s). However, it’s important to let them struggle a bit to boost perseverance and critical thinking skills.

Step 5:  Eliminate unnecessary information

This step requires practice because students often struggle with eliminating unnecessary information. I ask students to draw one line through the information so they can still read what they crossed out. Otherwise, students may cross out needed information and then erase so hard they tear the paper.

Some students eliminate too much, while others think everything is necessary. This step takes time and really tests their comprehension and critical thinking skills.

Step 6:  Draw a picture

Drawing a picture or representing the problem with a table, array, or tally marks helps students visualize the problem. Concrete manipulatives are also helpful and should be available to students who need to hold or manipulate items.

Quick sketches or other visual aids like tables, arrays, or tally marks are good enough. Remind them not to get too caught up in drawing a masterpiece and lose focus.

Step 7:  Determine if the problem is multi-step

Students can feel confused when encountering multi-step problems. Numbering the steps by writing a 1, 2, 3, etc., near the first step of the problem helps them stay organized.

You may also have to encourage students to keep working through the problem. Often students complete only one step and expect to be finished.

It’s essential to emphasize that as they progress, their problems become more challenging, and they’ll have more than one step.

Step 8: Solve

Finally, students must do the actual calculations to solve the problem.

It’s a lot to hand, but you can read and learn more below.

Want to learn more about CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy?

Click HERE to read another blog post about CUBES and CUBED posters and resources.

The more you explore, the more beneficial it will be!

Interested in additional CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy resources? Visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store for more options.

CUBES - CUBED poster bundle cover for the strategy to help students solve word problems
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CUBES and CUBED math word problem strategy posters
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Maybe much of this is a simple review for you, but I hope that maybe there was even one little idea that got you thinking a bit more deeply about word problems in your own classroom.  

CUBES math reference posters for the classroom
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**There are other strategies and sets out there similar to these posters. Still, I love the CUBED (with the letter “D”) strategy best because of the emphasis on Common Core to have students represent math problems with pictures or drawings (Drawings = D in the CUBED strategy).

Discover how effective graph paper for addition and subtraction practice can be.

addition and subtraction graph paper grids worksheets image

This proven method ensures students’ work remains neat and organized, leading to improved accuracy. These sets are a win-win for both students and educators!