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How to Add Rigor to Math Word Problems

December 27, 2018 No Comments
Grab some easy-to-implement tips for making math word problems more challenging at the elementary level!

…Wait, what? Did I read that title correctly? Yes! Usually we focus on breaking down word problems to make them more simple for students to solve. But in this blog post, I want to talk about doing the opposite. How can we make math word problems more rigorous for our students?

Grab some easy-to-implement tips for making math word problems more challenging at the elementary level!

WHY Should We Add Rigor to Math Problems?

Maybe you have a handful of students who solve math problems in a second and ask for more. Maybe you need more complex questions to match the rigor of your end-of-year tests. Or maybe you see that the types of problems your students have been solving aren’t making them think critically. There’s plenty of reasons why we want or need to use more challenging word problems.

But the idea isn’t to make word problems more difficult just for the sake of it. It’s not about adding lots of extra information to trick kids or using larger numbers that will take them a lot longer to compute. It’s about helping them develop the many higher order thinking skills involved in solving a word problem. Setting up every story problem the same way is not going to encourage students to use those critical thinking skills!

HOW Do We Add Rigor to Math Problems?

We want to help students dig deeper, think analytically and creatively, and learn multiple problem-solving strategies. But how? Let’s dive into some easy ways to make math word problems more challenging in the upper elementary classroom!

Vary the language. Try using lots of different words and phrases to frame the problem so students are exposed to a variety of questions. “How much does money does he have in all?” can be asked in a lot of ways.

Change up what you’re asking for. What information are you providing and what do students need to determine? For example, a multiplication word problem might require students to determine the product or one of the factors. For an elapsed time word problem, students might figure out the starting time, ending time, or how much time has passed.

Include charts, tables, graphs, and pictures. Require students to use information from tables and other visuals. Great real life skill!

Make it a two-step problem. Multistep word problems are great practice for students and much more challenging to think through.

Go beyond the four operations. Plenty of math content can be adapted for word problems. I like giving students word problems to practice rounding, measurement, elapsed time, geometry, and even probability! Moving past the traditional addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division word problems helps expose students to different types of thinking by looking at math in different situations.

Use open-ended questions. Try using word problems that allow for multiple ways of solving and multiple correct answer possibilities.

Add patterns to the problem. This is a good one to encourage students to use manipulatives, models, and drawings to solve the problem. Instead of “Emma makes seven donuts each day; how many donuts would Emma have after one week?,” you could try “Emma made three donuts on Sunday. She doubled the amount the next day. If she keeps increasing the number of donuts she makes by the same amount, how many donuts will she have made after one week?”

Use real world situations! Get kids thinking about how the word problem would play out in real life. This is especially true for division problems in which there is a remainder! What happens to it?

Try using an “If, then…” sentence frame. Give them the solution and have them figure out what the rule could be (either open-ended or having one correct answer). “If Rory walked 64 feet around the perimeter of the baseball diamond, then the distance from the first base to the second base was ____.”

Start at the end. Give students the answer and have them come up with the question. This is a good way to encourage creative math thinking. You can also do a sorting activity where they match up answers to questions.

Write the question as a poem or riddle. Having to read a poem for clues instead of reading a tradition 3-line story problem will really get them thinking!

Have students create their own word problems! No better way to increase engagement!

All of these strategies are great ways to add a little more rigor to a basic word problem. Should we try all of these on the first day of school? Of course not! But when you start to see that your kids are ready for a little more of a challenge, I hope these tips will help you find some ways to bump up the rigor a bit and help them develop those problem solving skills.

Got another trick up your sleeve? Let me know in the comments!

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Alyssa Teaches

Alyssa Teaches


I'm Alyssa! I've taught first and fourth grade and am now an elementary school librarian in Virginia. I have a teacher husband, three kids (6, 5, and 2), and a new pup! I love creating resources, Coca-Cola, and chocolate!


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