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3 Reads Strategy for Successful Problem Solving in Math

3 Reads strategy for problem solving with poster on clipboard and math manipulatives around it

Word Problems are often the hardest part of our math instruction. They can visually overwhelm students. They often contain extraneous information or multiple steps for completion. Students often struggle to persevere through complex problems. But, ultimately, it is through these complex problems that we are able to truly see our students’ understanding of math concepts and proficiency with the standards. Our students are expected to persevere through solving them, to demonstrate understanding, and to use a variety of strategies. I detail my experience with difficulties with story problems in my post Why Your Students Struggle with Word Problems. I use a modified 3 Reads Strategy in my classroom to help students make sense of complex word problems during our Word Problem of the Day. I connect it to the Close Reading we do during E/LA.

We have to read the problem closely to truly understand what is being asked of us as mathematicians.

The 3 Reads Strategy is a series of steps that helps students make sense of word problems. It’s focused on understanding the context. There are a variety of interpretations of the protocol. I have found my students have been increasingly successful following the 3 Read protocol daily. We do it during our Word Problem of the Day routine so we practice nearly every single day. At the beginning of the year, I walk my students through the 3 reads and we talk about the steps with each read. As the weeks go on, my scaffolding decreases as I expect students to apply the same steps independently. I often, especially with more complex word problems, do the first reading orally to provide access for all students. Here are the steps we take during our 3 Reads Routine.

3 Reads Strategy for Word Problems

1st Read: Read for Gist

The purpose of the first read is to get the gist of the word problem. Students should be able to answer what the problem is about; the context. Students should be able to retell, in their own words, what is happening in the word problem.

2nd Read: Read for the Unknown

The second read is focused on the unknown; what is being solved for. Identifying the unknown helps students identify important and necessary information for solving during the third read. This helps them parse extraneous information out. It also helps students ensure they’re solving for what is actually being asked. I have my students underline important information in the question and also write a sentence frame for the solution.

3rd Read: Read for Quantities

In this read, students identify the quantities and relevant units. During this read, I have students circle the numbers and underline the key words (most often the units) for solving. It’s important to note that I do not mean keywords that are typically words relating to operations such as more. In this read, we focus on what is known; the information given. With the unknown already being identified. Students then write an equation or expression to solve. They may also draw a picture if it’s helpful understanding the steps needed for solving.

Make a Plan

The last step in the 3 read protocol is to make a plan for solving. Now that students have identified what is being asked, the information that’s given to them, and what they are solving for, the last step is to actually solve. That may include modeling the problem with base ten blocks. It may also include using the standard algorithm to solve. Whatever strategy students feel they need, they do.

After students have worked through the problem, we share solutions and strategies. The focus is on so much more than a correct solution! I have students show their work and explain their thinking. Through our conversation we may critique someone else’s work to identify their mistake. We may share a variety of strategies for solving the equation. We may compare equations or expressions that were written for the problem. Because I’m walking around while students are working independently, I’m able to give on the spot support to some kids, while also identifying things I want to highlight for the group. This routine, and our steps after, go through so many of the Standards for Mathematical Practice!


It’s great to have a 3 Reads anchor chart or poster for student reference. A co-created anchor chart constructed with students while solving a complex problem would be great! I also have free black & white 3 Read Strategy posters that are perfect for printing on colored Astrobrights paper and made into a bulletin board. There’s also a 1-page 3 Reads Math Routine Poster that’s designed for student use.

3 Reads Strategy posters with the 4 steps on a bulletin board

Download the 3 Reads Routine posters here.

After students work to solve, we go over the problem. I scaffold the routine at the beginning of the year so we do each piece together. But as the weeks go on, I expect my students to become more and more independent in using the 3 Reads strategy. If they aren’t doing it independently when we’re working together, they’re not going to be using it independently in their work. Much of the power of our work comes from the discourse around the problem AND how students solved it. Depending on the problem, there can be value in focusing on the context and unknown. For others, the computation and strategies for solving may be the focus. I vary what our math discourse looks like. Some days, students talk with a partner as they work. Others, they talk with a partner after. Many times, it’s a whole class discussion.

math talk posters with colorful dialogue boxes with sentence stems on bulletin board display

These Math Talk posters help remind students of how they can engage in the classroom discourse around our word problem. They’re the perfect supplement to the 3 Reads Strategy because they refer back to the steps students followed based on the context of the problem. You can get My Math Talk posters for free in your inbox by filling out the form below.



We use our 3 Reads Strategy during our Word Problem of the Day routine. You can read more about it in the blog post linked below. If you want to take a closer look at my Word Problem of the Day Bundles for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, I have them in my TpT store. Each bundle includes a free Back to School version that gives you a great look at the format of the problems.

Why a Word Problem of the Day is a Must

3 reads strategy for problem solving text with clipboard and math manipulatiives and single page poster



  • I am one of the teachers that are teaching Word Problems wrong!
    I’ve read through all you said and it makes sense. Will use your strategy as our term starts tomorrow and this term the focus is on Word problems.
    Thanks for sharing. Do appreciate it.


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