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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 essential. 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 often in other subject areas.  Why?  Because they’re “real” life problems.

I agree some “real” life word problems are a bit ridiculous (you know, someone buying 60 watermelons – big eye roll here). Still, some problems are more true to life, making students’ ability to solve them much more valuable and meaningful.

Word problems come in so many different forms and at so many different levels. For example, we’re encountering 3 and 4 step word problems in upper elementary grades. Struggling students are in head-deep even with tried and true strategies.

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

After I present the lesson, I like to pull my most struggling students into a small group right away 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

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 reread it.

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 learned during ELA class! Next, 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 students tell you what’s happening in the problem. Usually, they won’t want to. However, sometimes they can’t because they genuinely 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 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. That’s where the process becomes complicated. 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 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 we 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 students have rushed through.

Step 2:  Circle the numbers AND LABELS!

In my opinion, labels are crucial to students’ level of understanding. Therefore, I instruct my students to circle the numbers AND the labels together. That saves time at the end when they need to label their answer. Plus, it promotes understanding.


Step 3:  Underline the question

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 reread the problem again, emphasizing the question. That’s where 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, there’s no natural way to select the correct operation and proceed to solve the problem. A discussion needs to continue for understanding.

Step 4:  Box the keywords

Keywords are given in many word problems, and students should 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 altogether can also represent addition or multiplication (How many shells does Bob have altogether?), and students need to understand the problem more deeply to know which operation to use.

As students attempt to identify the necessary operation(s), they try using their charms to prompt you into giving lots of hints and clues and (sometimes) too many nudges.  Let them struggle just a little, so they learn perseverance and develop critical thinking skills.

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

I ask students to draw one line through the information. Some students scribble out needed information. That’s when they erase so hard they rip a hole through the paper.

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

Step 6:  Draw a picture

Now’s the time for students to draw a picture or represent the problem with a table, array, or tally marks. Of course, concrete manipulatives are helpful in this step and should be available to students who need to hold or manipulate items.

And while we’re discussing drawings, it’s important to point out that the pictures can 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 successfully written a “1” by (or above) the first step of the problem, or the first answer students need to find. Next, they should write a “2” beside the second step, etc. Often students complete only one step and stop.

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

Step 8: Solve

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

Whew, it’s really a lot!

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 CUBES Math Word Problem Strategy resources available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

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.  Teachers are natural collaborators – we make each other better teachers 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 similar to these posters. Still, I LOVE 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!  Take care!