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how to solve multi step word problems

Multi-Step Word Problems, DECODED!

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how to solve multi step word problems

Even though we just got back from Thanksgiving break and Christmas break is literally just around the corner ( how can that be?! ) we’re still working through content like it’s no one’s business. Who’s got down time in 3rd grade? #notthisteacher  This week is all about solving multi-step word problems.

This simple technique makes solving multi step word problems a breeze! I love that the process includes a model, collaboration, and independent practice piece. There's a free printable at the end, too!

Now, any teacher can tell you that word problems on their own are tricky enough. Key-words, important information, sometimes extra information, it’s all hard to sort through when you’re just a kid! Multi-step problems take this stress to a whole new level because now you can’t just put two numbers together and call it quits, you have to do ANOTHER step to solve! #kidsworsenightmare #ijustwannabedone. 

So, we’ve implemented a process to help us zero in on the information and decide what steps we have to take to solve those tricky problems! I call it the three-step method, but I am sure there is a formal name for what I’m about to share…

Solving Word Problems Reminder

First, I reviewed with my class how to solve regular word problems. I’ve taught them the strategy, “Circle, Circle, Underline” (circle information and underline what they want them to do figure out)  to help zero in on the important stuff. We solved the problem and we were ready to move on. Then, I added a second question to our previous. I showed the students how to use information gathered from our first step to solve the second question. Once we solved, we headed back to our seats to take notes on the three-step method.

This simple technique makes solving multi step word problems a breeze! I love that the process includes a model, collaboration, and independent practice piece. There's a free printable at the end, too!

You can read more about our simple chant to help with 1 step word problems here ! 

I used the gradual release process as teaching structure for this method and it worked really well.

Modeling Two-Step Word Problems

First, the kiddos wrote out the 3 steps to take to solve a multi-step word problem.

how to solve multi step word problems

I like having kids write things in their own words. It makes me think they are “owning” their learning. We worked together using the three-step process to solve a sample problem right below.

how to solve multi step word problems

Practice With a Buddy

Then, it was their turn to practice with a buddy. I have my class in Kagan style groupings, so I had them turn to their shoulder partner for this part.

how to solve multi step word problems

They talked it through with their buddy and then glued it in.

Independent Practice

Finally, they were ready to try the process on their own. They worked through the word problems just like they did with their buddy. And because their buddy was still sitting right by them, they could also double check if they had an issue.

how to solve multi step word problems

Number Talking our Answers

Once all the students were ready, we came back together as a class and shared every single person’s way of solving the problem. I wanted each student to take a moment and explain their thought process. Eventually, we’ll move to writing out the why’s and how’s but for now, talking is our first step!

I recorded everyone’s method on the whiteboard. (Yes… my new school has half chalkboard and half whiteboard… so sad!)

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how to solve multi step word problems

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how to solve multi step word problems

Multi-Step Word Problems Mastery

How many of you cringe at the thought of teaching your students multi-step word problems? (RAISES HAND!) I get it. I know. It's tough. It is overwhelming, and it's not necessarily something that just “clicks” for kids. They need practice, they need time to think through problems, and they need to start really thinking like mathematicians in order to become proficient at more difficult problems. Luckily, over the years, I've come up with a few different ideas and activities for helping students master multi-step word problems! There are TONS of freebies in this post. Enjoy!

Over the years, I've come up with a few different ideas, anchor charts, and activities for helping students master solving multi-step word problems!

CUBES for Problem Solving

I always begin problem-solving (not just multi-step word problems) by teaching my students CUBES. This has been around for years, in many different variations. An oldie but a goodie, if you will!

solving word problems anchor chart

I REALLY, REALLY emphasize the “E” because this is where kids get stuck. I created the three “What” questions that they need to be able to answer before they can move on and solve the problem. Before they try to solve the problems, they need to ask themselves:

I have found that kids are almost always able to figure out the answers to these questions when they are required to stop and think about it, and this step ALWAYS helps to set them up for problem-solving success!

Teaching my students to use a pretty specific format for showing their work and solving word problems. I have been using some variation of this for years, and it has evolved the more and more I have used it.

The Single-Step Format

The sample problem I used in this anchor chart is a SINGLE-STEP problem, and I would highly encourage you to teach this format using a single-step format, then move on later to using it for multi-step (hang tight! I will address using this format with multi-step problems soon!).

word problems anchor chart

Now, do I recommend you use this format for every single word problem students use? Absolutely not. However, we do at least one or two a week this way simply because of the “answer” section and how important it is for students to be able to explain their math process.

Students always have to begin their written answers with “To solve this problem, I…” and they always have to end it with “Therefore, I know…” Students are always very tempted to say, “To solve this problem I added 1,098 and 530. Therefore, I know the answer is 1,628 calories.” Is this right? Sure! But is it the best answer and explanation they could have given? Nope.

I always encourage my students to be VERY specific about what the numbers are that they are addressing when they write out their answers. This helps them really evaluate their thinking and see if it made sense. There is a big difference between telling me which numbers you added and what those numbers represent. This also encourages students to restate the question in their answer and make sure they have actually answered the question that is being asked.

**THIS IS ALWAYS A CHALLENGE!** It takes my students several examples to catch on to explaining their answers in this way, but it is so, so worth it once they truly understand. Here is another student sample:

additon word problems

Introducing Multi-Step Problem Solving

Now, before I have them use this model for multi-step problems, there are a few activities we do to prepare for that challenge and to get them comfortable with multi-step problems.

First, I have them do a little sequencing sort. I give them a completed multi-step problem with all of the steps out of order. The steps are written in the same format as described above, with very specific instructions walking the reader through how they solved the problem. The students put the directions back in order and make sure it all makes sense. They aren't actually having to do any math here, so it frees them up to simply think about the process. ( These sorts are free ! See link at the end of my blog post.)

word problems activity

Then we work with these multi-step word problem cutouts . Each half-page word problem includes 4-5 steps to solve it. Students must cut out the steps and rearrange them into the correct order to fully explain how to solve each problem.

Foldables for Scaffolded Practice

Once I feel like students understand the basics of solving multi-step problems, we move on to some scaffolded practice using these handy little foldables that I created! (I have created ten pages of varying levels, and they are FREE for you to use with your students! Click the link at the end of the post to access the freebies.)

Each page is split in half. Students fold the paper in half, cut across the dotted lines on the right side, and fold the right flaps under. They always start with the left side, where they read the problem, following the CUBE steps (with a special place for the Examine step, because I think it is SO important), and then they open the flaps to reveal step-by-step how to solve the problem. The flaps give the student hints about what step they need to complete and sometimes how to do it. It serves as a scaffolded guide for solving these tricky word problems.

The purpose of the flaps is to guide students through the steps, but to also give them time to think about what the next steps are and then see if they are correct.

Now, the only tricky part about this is that students might solve problems differently (and possibly in a different order) and get the same answer and THAT IS OKAY. These are meant to be used as an introduction to multi-step problem solving only! There are so many ways you can let your students use them.

multi-step word problems

Once we have done several of these together, I let them start working on their own with task cards and our four square format I mentioned above. I have them glue task cards in their notebooks and work through each problem. Once they have done a few like this, I let them move on to working on them without the four square format.

Some students even like to create their own foldables (like those that I showed above) with the task cards!

Multi-Step Word Problems Template

You can purchase my Multi-Step Word Problem Task Cards HERE.

When kids are ready, we then move on to multi-part problems. Kids LOVE these, and they seem to really thrive on the challenge of not only having a multi-step problem, but also a multi-PART problem.

Mastering Multi-Part Math Problems

You can purchase my Multi-Part Task Cards HERE.

…and when your students are really ready for an even bigger challenge, it's time to present to them… Math Detectives! This is a new spin on Error Analysis that requires students to really analyze solutions and see which solutions and problem solving steps are the most reasonable. Each card has a task on it (usually multi-step) and there are two different explanations for a solution. The students have to figure out which explanation is correct and then solve the problem. This is such a fun activity for my students! They love being detectives.

Math Detectives Task Cards

You can purchase Math Detectives HERE.

Well, there you have it! All of my ideas and resources for teaching students to love solving multi-step word problems! It doesn't have to be (too) scary.

If you'd like to download the THIRTY pages worth of freebies featured above, please enter your email address below:

This freebie includes the two tasks mentioned above as well as anchor chart templates and printable posters.

Multi-Step Word Problems Lessons

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how to solve multi step word problems

Help Your Kids Solve Multi-Step Word Problems

Help Your Kids Solve Multi-Step Word Problems

For math homework, I always tell my daughter to solve the problems she knows how to do on her own first, and then leave the more difficult problems for us to work on together. Almost every time, she leaves her math word problems to go over with me. For those of you who aren't familair with the term, a word problem is just like a math problem, except it uses text to present the problem. Here's an example of a one step word problem: Sarah brought 3 sugar cookies to school and gave 1 of them to her teacher. How many sugar cookies did Sarah have left? Many children find word problems to be pretty intimidating. So much so that a lot of children don’t even read them thoroughly. It's as if they've given up before the problem's even begun!

Now enter in multi-step word problems(!!), which require your children to to use more than one step to find the solution. Starting around 2 nd  grade, your children will be asked to solve two-step word problems. This can add greater stress and anxiety about word problems, and apprehension about math in general. Especially if your children aren't equipped with the right tools. But not to worry. We've got the tools. Below are steps you can use to help your child solve multi-step problems. Creating this process is not only crucial to the development of your child's independent thinking, but will also build her confidence about all aspects of math.

Here are steps to solving a multi-step problem:

Step 1: Circle and underline. Circle only the necessary information and underline what ultimately needs to be figured out. Step 2: Figure out the first step/problem in the paragraph and solve it. Last step: Find the answer by using the information from Steps 1 and 2.

These steps might be simple, but not for a young student. In fact they're part of an important process your child can refer to no matter what the problem is asking her. Now...be patient. At first, this process needs to be drawn out for your child so she can see the importance of doing each step, but eventually she will be able to navigate multi-step problems with ease.

Here's an example of this in practice:

how to solve multi step word problems

Step 3:  How many cookies were baked in all? 30 sugar + 20 gingerbread = 50 cookies

Answer:  They baked 50 cookies for Christmas

Using this process will be a great start to helping your child solve multi-step problems. Having your child see the steps and make sense of why she is doing each one, is going to help her reasoning tremendously, and promote some belief in her own math thinking as well.

Does your child struggle with multi-step word problems? Share if this strategy helps on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page . 

Featured Photo Credit:  © Yin Yang/istockphotos

how to solve multi step word problems

how to solve multi step word problems

Grab my Math Problem-Solving Sampler Pack!

This handy download includes a variety of resources to help your students master word problems! You’ll find the ready-to-go Small Group Planner, the Problem-Solving Rounds Cheat Sheet, the printable Thinking Mat for any word problem, plus unique options such as Tiered Word Problems and Side-by-Sides. Get it now when you sign up for free resources and teaching tips from Teacher Trap!

how to solve multi step word problems

Mastering Multi-Step Word Problems

Of all the tricky word problems, multi-step problems cause my students the most trouble. They get confused about the order of events, the operations needed to solve, and the computation of multiple numbers.  In this post, I’m sharing the four simple steps for helping students master multi-step word problems.

Multi-Step Word Problem Strategies for helping students conquer tricky word problems!

Step 1: Read and Visualize

The first thing we do with a multi-step word problem is read it slowly and visualize what is happening. This first step is about using our good reading comprehension strategies.

I ask students to close their eyes and imagine the events as they take place. 

Julie had 82 stickers. 

Imagine a girl with some stickers. Maybe they’re all in a box. See her holding the box in her hands.

Her aunt gave her 26 more stickers.

Can you see her aunt handing her more stickers? Julie adds those to her box now. What operation would match that action?

Then Julie let her brother pick out 12 stickers to keep.

Imagine her little brother coming over and taking 12 out of the box. Will Julie have more or fewer stickers now? What operation matches that step?

How many stickers does Julie have?

Imagine her holding the box of stickers. How many are in there now?

We practice this type of visualizing over and over again until students begin to naturally visualize every time they read a word problem. This is SO important!   Especially with multi-step word problems, you can’t just grab numbers and start working with them without carefully thinking through the operations needed.

During this step, you might also consider leaving out the numbers. You can say, “Julie had some stickers. Her aunt gave her some more. Her brother picked out some to keep.” This can help students focus on the events rather than trying to solve!

Step 1 (Part 2): Act it Out

I like to have students visualize first so that each child has to do the thinking work on their own.  Visualizing is an important strategy for independent problem solving.

But when we’re working together as a whole class, it’s helpful to make sure everyone is on the same page and was able to visualize the situation correctly.  That’s why we also physically act out multi-step word problems.

We act out the problems with simple gestures that show if we are giving away (losing, eating, using up, etc.) things or if we are gaining more of something.  Incorporating movement helps many students make sense of tricky problems.

Sometimes, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to act out the problem in front of the classroom, and sometimes we’ll all just do it together from our spots. 

Again, it’s often helpful to leave out the numbers. Our goal is to give meaning to what is happening in the problem and relate each action to its matching operation, not to start solving.

Step 2: Write an Answer Statement First

Once students have made sense of the problem, it’s helpful to have them write an Answer Statement.  The Answer Statement can help students determine and remember what the problem is asking them to find out.

For example:

Julie has ___ stickers now.

This helps students remember that we are trying to determine how many stickers Julie has after the events of the problem. It also ensures that students actually READ the question!

After students solve the problem, they can place their answer in the statement and check if it makes sense.

how to solve multi step word problems

Step 3: Write the Full Equation

One of the challenges of multi-step word problems is that students often solve one part but forget or miss the next step.  I find that it’s helpful to have them write the entire equation, including all the steps, before trying to solve any of the parts.

From the earlier example, students would write:

82 + 26 -12 = ?

After they have written the equation, I like to look back at it and talk out how it matches the story problem.

Julie started with 82 stickers. Her aunt gave her 26 more, so we need to add 26. Then her brother took 12, so we need to subtract 12.

Now students can see all of the events represented in one equation and will be less likely to forget a step.

Step 4: Chunk the Parts

Now that students know the parts, I ask them to look at the equation and determine a plan for solving. In many cases, this simply means to complete the first part (86 + 26 = A) and then use that answer to complete the second part. (A – 12 = ?)

In some cases, students may notice an easier way to work with the numbers and reorder the steps.

125 + 52 – 25 = ?

Some students may see that they can simply take the 25 from 125 first and end up with 100, which is then easy to add to 52.

Another example:

42 – 18 + 7 = ?

Some students may realize they can avoid regrouping by first adding 7 to 42 and then subtracting the 18. 

When students know all the steps, they are able to think about smarter ways to complete the task.  

Handy Tools for Multi-Step Word Problems

I find that the key to teaching multi-step word problems is starting with a simplified version of the problem and working up to the more challenging ones.

My favorite way to do this is to use Tiered Word Problems . These are leveled word problems that slowly increase in challenge from the first grade level on up.

Multi-step word problems teaching tools!

Since multi-step word problems can be scary, I decided to use a zombie theme for the pack. (Plus, my students love zombies!) This pack includes leveled problems that allow me to differentiate instruction and gradually increase the challenge. 

Although the pack is targeted to 2nd and 3rd graders, it’s perfect for challenging younger students or intervening when older students aren’t quite catching on. 

You can check out the Multi-Step Word Problems Zombie Pack in my TPT store.

I hope these tips make your teaching life a little easier! What strategies help your students make sense of multi-step problems? Comment below!

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you did your best work on the paper work and its good for my studants thanck you

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how to solve multi step word problems

How to Teach Multi-Step Word Problems in Intervention Groups

How to Teach Multi-Step Word Problems

Use these four easy steps to help your students master multi-step word problems.Are your students having trouble mastering multi-step word problems? It’s a tough skill, but I’m here to make your life easier by outlining simple lesson plans to help you take your students from intervention to mastery. Just follow the outline, teach your kids, and watch them grow.

Where to Start Teaching Multi-Step Word Problems?

Start with your data. Use your data to decide who needs to work on word problems. After you decide who needs to work on the skill, pull out the word problems that put these students in an intervention group. Ask the students:

Think of these questions as a formative assessment. Take note of student responses. Don’t judge students or tell them that they are wrong, praise them for being honest, listen, take notes. Smile. 🙂

Don’t Assume They Know

We all have assumptions about what students should know when they walk into our classroom, but the only way we can really know is to give some formative assessment.

Start at the beginning. When you plan any type of math intervention, think C-R-A .

word problem supplies such as calculator, pencils, and notebook paper

A Four-Step Intervention Lesson Plan For Teaching Multi-Step Word Problems

I recommend starting at the beginning of this outline, even if it seems too easy for your students. I always tell my kids that we’re focusing on the process and learning how to think, not just solving problems. You may make it through the first few steps of this outline in one day, but it is important to make sure that your students have the basic understanding needed before moving on to more complicated multi-step problems.

word problem supplies such as cubes, pencils, and notebook paper

Steps to Solve Multi-Step Word Problems:

There are many different strategies or steps that can be used to teach the process of solving word problems, so adjust the process to suit your students. Your students will start to feel more confident solving multi-step problems and you’ll see their success!

If you need a resource for differentiated word problems, check out my Multi-Step Word Problem Bundle in my TpT Store.

Need more resources for teaching Word Problems? Check out these articles:

Strategies For Solving Word Problems by The Teacher Next Door

14 Effective Ways to Help Your Students Conquer Math Word Problems by Jill Staake

How to Help Students Who Struggle With Word Problems by Room to Discover

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