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Teaching Students to be Problem Solving Ninjas

How to be a Problem Solving Ninja: Steps for Word Problem Success

For years I taught my students the same problem solving process. I wasn’t invested in it and I didn’t think it was the best. But, it was something I had found online for free. This year I spontaneously put a new twist on it, and it’s worked for my students better than ever before.  As I was telling students they need to go through the steps to attack the problem, I added on that they attack the problem like a ninja.  Eyes lit up.  Smiles grew on faces.  They all wanted to be a ninja. And becoming a Problem Solving Ninja was born!

As we talked about it I found more ways to apply the ninja theme throughout the process.  Now, students know they need to attack the word problem before battle so that they can win. It’s cheesy, and I know not everyone approves of having ninjas in their classrooms, but it’s really stuck with my students.  They even proudly exclaim “Miss Maguire, I was a ninja and I beat the problem!”

Problem Solving Step 1: Read the Problem Carefully

Kids always want to race through problems. I’ve found that they read the problem and immediately start underlining and circling. When they do this, they often target unnecessary information and aren’t trying to solve based on meaning. I teach my kids to read the problem through the entire way the first time. This first read is focused on understanding.

Step 2: Underline info needed to solve and circle numbers.

After the first read, students read the problem again. On this read, they identify important information. By underlining and circling the information, it helps to pull out what’s needed to solve. A

Step 3: Identify what is known and what is unknown

Once students have identified the information that will be used from the problem, we connect it to knowns and unknowns. The unknown is what we are solving for. We also connect to part and wholes (and equal groups). By connecting the information to these key components, students are identifying the operation presented from the context in the problem. This is the most important work for our discussion. To read more about our problem solving process and why we connect knowns/unknowns and part/whole, read my Why Your Students Struggle with Word Problems post.

Step 4: Identify the operation & write an equation.

Once students have found the knowns and unknowns, they are ready to write an equation. I typically have my students write an equation instead of an expression, and we use a variable for the unknown. I just find that our daily practice with writing equations helps students understand that unknowns can be in any position, and not always after an equals sign. Not sure what I mean by equation and expression? Read my IG post on Equation vs. Expression.

Step 5: Identify the strategy to help you solve.

Students use strategies like drawing a picture, making a table, drawing base 10 blocks, etc.  We discuss and practice these strategies throughout the year during our regular math block. We also compare strategies when we go over the problem. By focusing on the strategies and the equations, I’m reinforcing that understanding the problem, and using strategies to solve, are more important than the answer. And of course, I want my students to get the write answer. But most importantly, if they don’t, I want to reinforce what they did well, and help support them so they’ll get the write answer in the future.

Step 6: Solve the problem.

We’ve written our equation, we have identified our strategy we’ll use, and now we solve the word problem.

Step 7: Check your work using the inverse operation.

Teaching students to check their work is crucial, especially because so many don’t do it, or don’t see the point in doing it.  Have you ever told them to “Go back and check your work” and they just look at the page and say it’s been checked?  It makes me crazy but so many students do just that.  I teach my students to use the inverse operation to check their work to prove it’s correct.  Just as in reading we use text evidence to prove our answers, in math we use the opposite operation to prove our answers.  I’d love to tell you that every single student does it now, but of course that doesn’t happen.  But, a girl can dream, right?

We practice problem solving every day as a warm up to our math block.  I’ve found students really need time to try out the strategies, opportunities to explain what they did, and time to work together to brainstorm and make mistakes. During our Word Problem of the Day, we focus on strategies as well as correct answers. I want students to continue to try new strategies out and feel comfortable with them in low stress settings. I also want to give them ongoing practice with all of the real world applications they’re responsible for. This daily word problem spiral helps my students to feel comfortable with problem solving. You can click any of the images below to head to TpT to take a closer look at my Word Problem of the Day bundles for 1st-3rd grades. Or, click here to check out my options for 4th grade.

2nd Grade Word Problems of the Day cover3rd Grade Problem of the Day Story Problems Bundle Cover

You can also download my free Back to School Word Problem of the Day sets. I start using these right from the beginning of the year (usually by day 4!) right as I introduce our problem solving process. You can click any of the links below to download that grade level set for free!

1st Grade Word Problem of the Day

2nd Grade Word Problem of the Day

3rd Grade Word Problem of the Day

4th Grade Word Problem of the Day

To save paper (because giving students 25 pages each month makes me want to cry) I print two per page and then double side them.  To print two per page you just change the settings in the print dialogue box under page scaling.

We also practice story problems based on specific, targeted skills like Area & Perimeter or Elapsed time. It’s important to me that we our ongoing standards work includes word problems so that students are experiencing those standards in real world contexts. I have a variety of word problem sets in my TpT store- especially for 3rd grade.

You can teach students how to be Problem Solving Ninjas. Click the image below to head to my TpT store and download them for free.

How to be a Problem Solving Ninja- Problem Solving Process Posters
For more reading on Problem Solving, read my Why Your Students Struggle with Word Problems…And What to do About It post.]
Why your Kids Struggle with Word Problems and what to do sintead
How to be a Problem Solving Ninja: Steps for Word Problem Success


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