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How to Teach Math Word Problems – CUBES Math Strategy

“Using CUBES math strategy for word problems has been a game changer!” a teacher from Missouri told me. Having a math problem solving strategy for story problems is important. Students need a starting point in dealing with all of those words!

CUBES math strategy for word problems
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Math Word Problems

Word problems are here to stay.  They pop up in nearly every math lesson, and oftentimes in other subject areas as well.  Why?  Because they’re “real” life problems.

I agree, some “real” life word problems are a bit ridiculous (someone buying 60 watermelons, really?!?!), but some problems are more true to life, which makes students’ ability to solve them much more valuable and meaningful.

Word problems come in so many different forms, and at so many different levels.  My current dilemma revolves around multi-step word problems.  In upper elementary grades, we’re encountering 3 and 4 step word problems. My strugglers are in head-deep even with tried and true strategies.

I teach in large group and small groups, and I use dry-erase boards with my students – A LOT!  It’s so easy to see which students understand, and which are still struggling.

Right after I present the lesson, I like to pull my hardest struggling students into small group right away before they have a chance to 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

I begin small group by giving each student a CUBES card with the CUBES math word problem strategy listed on the card. Students love the reference card to remind them of the steps we take to tackle the problems. The card is from my CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy Kit for teaching word problems.
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.

Then read it again.

Students need to read or hear the problem at least twice before they even pick up a pencil to start. Now is the time to use those reading skills that students have been learning during ELA class! They need to visualize – what’s happening in the problem?

Here’s the clincher – don’t let them off the hook!  Even when they squirm and become uncomfortable.

Make them tell you what is happening in that problem. Usually they won’t want to.  Sometimes they can’t because they truly don’t understand what is happening.

My low readers often don’t digest the information as they’re reading. Word problems call on so many different 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 exactly why they must read and re-read 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 “get” them. My strugglers often don’t even want to read the problem once. This is where the process becomes difficult. Students may need to focus on just one sentence at a time. They need time to break each sentence down and think about what it really means.

And that’s the problem for us as teachers. All of the reading and discussion takes time – very valuable time.  It also takes practice and perseverance – which is what we Common Core teachers are supposed to be focusing on.  I often adjust or differentiate assignments by giving my struggling crew fewer problems to complete.

I’d rather have 5 problems done correctly than 15 incorrect problems that have been rushed through.

Step 2:  Circle the numbers AND LABELS!

In my opinion, labels are super important to students’ level of understanding.  I instruct my students to circle the numbers AND the labels together. This will save time at the end when they need to label their answer. Plus, it promotes understanding.


Step 3:  Underline the question

Actually, I hope they not only underline it, but understand it. Students should try to repeat the question in their own words.  Ask them, “What is the problem asking you to find?” Students should be able to answer. Often, they will look at me and say the dreaded, “I don’t know.” That’s when we backtrack and re-read the problem again, emphasizing the question. This is where we have the part versus 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, there is no real way that he can select the correct operation and proceed to solve the problem. Discussion needs to continue for understanding.

Step 4:  Box the keywords

Key words are given in many word problems and students should be able to recognize them. But BEWARE! We all know that keywords can be tricky.

Some keywords can be used for more than one operation, such as altogether.  Altogether represents the total amount, but it can be used to represent either addition or multiplication (How many shells does Bob have altogether?), and students need to rely on understanding the problem more deeply in order to know which operation to use.

As students identify which operation(s) will be used, this is also the time that confidence takes a dive. Students look at you with their sad little puppy-dog eyes and use their charms to prompt you into giving hints and clues, and maybe – the answer!  Don’t do it!  Stay strong!

Step 5:  Eliminate information that’s not necessary to the problem

I ask students to draw one line through the information, otherwise some students scribble out information that is actually needed. Then they erase so hard a hole rips through the paper.

Some students eliminate too much, while others think everything is important. This step takes time and really tests comprehension and critical thinking skills – which is why this step is difficult. Plus, students might feel that they’re being tricked.

Step 6:  Draw a picture

This is actually where students draw a picture, or really, represent the problem with some kind of picture, table, array, or tally marks.  Of course, concrete manipulatives are useful in this step and should be available to students who need to hold or manipulate items.

And while we’re still on drawings, it’s important to point out that the drawings can simply be quick sketches, arrays, bars, lines, etc.  Sometimes I have students who try to draw a masterpiece and become so absorbed in their drawing that they lose focus.

Step 7:  Determine if the problem is multi-step

The first few times a student encounters a multi-step problem, they’re confused.  I’ve had success by writing a 1 by (or above) the first step of the problem, or the first answer that they need to find.  They should write a 2 beside the second step. Often students will complete only one step and stop.

I’m constantly telling students that they’re big kids now, their problems are tougher, and they won’t have just one step any more.

Step 8: Solve

Finally, students need to actually calculate and solve the problem.  Use the operation that makes the most sense to the student.  Sometimes they want to add, when they could be multiplying.  Repeated addition isn’t as efficient, but a student can still arrive at the correct answer.

Want more information about CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy?

Click HERE to read another blog post about CUBES and CUBED posters and resources. The more you read about them, the more you’ll find them worthwhile!

Here are some of the sets of CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy resources that are in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, if you want to look them over.

CUBES math word problem strategy poster set
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CUBES and CUBED math word problem strategy posters
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CUBES poster set for solving math story problems
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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.  Teachers are natural collaborators – we make each other better teachers just by sharing ideas and discussing them.

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

Please stop by again, or leave me a comment below, just so I know you are out there somewhere!  Take care!

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