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Math: Story Problems

Strategies For Success


Today's Snack: Here's a sure-fire strategy for snacking success: have a banana, a graham cracker and a glass of milk!





For some kids, especially the creative thinkers among us, the reading and thinking that are required for story problems trip them up. They're good at math when it's just numbers and symbols. But when the "problem" is compounded with words that they may not be able to read and understand in a snap, story problems can become difficult.


It also helps to know a few tricks to help you read and understand math problems more quickly.


Here are some strategies that parents and teachers can go through with kids to help their "math story" have a happy ending:



Key Words in Story Problems - Check out the other After School Treat in this Story Problems category which lists words and phrases that you will find in story problems that are clues for which math operation to do. For example, when you see the term "in all," you know that's a clue to add.



Think Aloud in Story Problems - As you work out a story problem on paper, talk about it aloud as you work it out. Often, you will "hear" errors in your thinking, when you don't "see" them.



Chart It in Story Problems - If there are a lot of extra words in a story problem that are confusing you, organize the information that you need to solve the problem into a table or mini-chart. Here's an example:


In February, Bookstore A sold 125 books for grownup and 55 books for kids. Across the street, Bookstore B sold 85 books for grownups and 65 for kids. On the next block, Bookstore C sold 210 books for grownups and 55 for kids. Which store sold the most books overall (grownups and kids combined)?


Here's the table you could create to solve this:


Bookstore A Bookstore B Bookstore C

Grownups: 125 Grownups: 85 Grownups: 210

Kids: 655 Kids: 65 Kids: 55

180 150 265

With the organizational help of the table, you can see that the answer is Bookstore C, with 265 total books.



Diagram It - It helps to draw a quick picture or diagram to help you visualize problems. If the teacher asked you to find the perimeter of the playground, which is 50 feet long and 20 feet wide, draw a rectangle that is taller, rather than wider. You can see that 50 is a lot bigger than 20, so you know right off the bat that the playground is a vertical shape, rather than a square or a horizontal shape.

Write 20 feet across the top, representing how wide it is. Write 50 feet over to the side, representing how long it is. Write 20 feet across the bottom, again marking the width. Then write 50 feet on the other side, marking 50 feet as the length.


You find the perimeter of something by adding up the length of its sides. So you would add 20 + 50 + 20 + 50 = 140 feet. See how much drawing it as a picture helps you visualize the problem?



Work Backwards - In a problem in which you are given the result, the answer, the total quantity, or the final score, and you have to find out one part of that result, answer, quantity or score, it's easy to get confused. So think about "working backwards." Draw a diagram of the final result so that you can see each part of the total picture. For example:


Three bunnies were in a race to see which could hop the farthest in one minute. Belinda Bunny hopped 3 yards farther than Petunia Bunny. Bertha Bunny was the winner - she jumped 10 yards, which was 3 yards more than Belinda. How many yards did Petunia jump?


Draw this diagram; you can draw cute bunnies around the names:


Belinda Bertha


0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10



As you read the problem, check to see that Belinda and Bertha are where they should be, based on the information given. Now re-read the problem, and see that Petunia jumped three yards LESS than Belinda. So where should you write Petunia's name and draw her picture: Answer: at 4 yards. Just as drawing a picture to find out the answer can help you, when you have the answer, drawing a picture can help you understand the problem better.



Straight Columns - When you get into math problems - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - with numbers that have two or more digits, sometimes you make mistakes because you don't write the numbers in straight columns. To avoid this, use graph paper for a while. Write the numbers inside each tiny square, and you'll get into the habit of writing numbers in straight columns.



Count Up in Subtraction - When you have a problem solving a subtraction problem, "count up." Turn it into a reverse addition problem to get your answer. So if you're stumped by 8 - 3, "count up" from 3 and keep count of how many numbers you pass to get there. Count "4,5,6,7,8." So you "counted up" 5, right? Well, 5 is the answer to 8 - 3!



Ounces and Pounds - To remember how many ounces there are in a pound, look at the abbreviation for pound - lb. See how it kind of looks like "16"? And there are 16 ounces in a pound. There you go!



Decimal Dollars - Think of a number with a decimal as money. Pretend there's a dollar sign in front of the number(s) in front of the decimal. So the numbers in front of the decimal point are "dollars," and the numbers after the decimal point are "cents." So the number 14.67 could be imagined as fourteen dollars and 67 cents, or $14.67. It helps to visualize decimals as something practical in the real world.



Lazy Loops - When you are multiplying a number with a decimal by 100, instead of multiplying it out, draw two little loops under the other number to the right. Start at the decimal point and draw two loops to the right. Then you can see where to move the decimal. For example:


7.589 x 100 = 758.9



By Susan Darst Williams Math 2012

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