December 22, 2022

Let’s Talk About Story Problems

As long as I can remember, story problems, sometimes called word problems, have been the bane of my existence, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one. They were the last two problems at the end of my homework which somehow seemed more difficult than the 25 (odds only) repeated practice I had just completed. I was a decent math student when it came to calculation, but it took many years and several strategies to conquer story problems as a learner. 

As an educator, I understood story problems were one part of a rigorous math curriculum, but there were only a handful of methods to teach my students how to solve them. Of course, there were the typical strategies: “Have your students draw a picture,” or “Teach them to highlight important terms and numbers.” We could teach key words and provide students with a daily word problem to solve, but there wasn’t an obvious basis for instruction. There was very little focus on modeling or critical (mathematical) thinking, and there was certainly no (consistent) attention paid to student-led discourse in the math classroom. 

Luckily, times have changed, and we now know what works, even when it comes to solving story problems. 

To start, we know what makes a great math lesson.

  • Intellectual Preparation – As a teacher, you have knowledge of each student and the math concept to be taught.
  • Love of Math – As a teacher, you show passion for the ideas the students share in the math class.
  • Build Independence – As a teacher, you build student autonomy by teaching the student transferable takeaways for future learning. You teach the student, not the question.
  • Meaning Mindset – As a teacher, you understand that making meaning in math class is more important than correct answers. 

We now understand the importance of analyzing student work for a number of reasons.

  • It provides more information about the students’ levels of understanding and can focus your lessons using data.
  • This knowledge allows you to select a transferable takeaway for your lesson.
  • Analysis encourages you to connect student strategies and identify students to share their mathematical thinking. Strategies shared should drive towards a transferable takeaway and clearly represent the strategy in a purposeful order.

We understand student-led discourse is powerful learning.

  • Discourse should be targeted and purposeful, focused on a learning goal specific to student needs. Make your content meaningful and relevant.
  • Students lead the conversation and take ownership over their own learning.
  • You can increase the effectiveness of discourse by questioning students to reach a clear lesson goal.
  • Infuse the conversation with a diverse set of voices.
  • Hold students accountable for showing respect for one, listening closely, and using evidence from the work being discussed. 
  • Teach students to self-monitor and notice when they need clarification.
  • Oral processing helps students grapple with big ideas, and it is particularly beneficial for diverse learners and English Language Learners.

Now that we know what works, how should you teach story problems? Well, I can’t give away all the Math for Meaning secrets in just one blog post, but I can share three components of a proper story problem lesson for you to try!

  1. Story Problem Launch (3-5 minutes) – How do you start this lesson?
    1. Introduce the problem by providing (real-life) context for learning and sharing your passion for math.
    2. Read the problem to the students multiple times to ensure all students have access and ask them to create a “mind movie” about what they hear.
    3. Have more than one student explain the story in their own words.
  2. Work Time with Conferencing (6-10 minutes) – What strategies will your students use and what is their rationale?
    1. Students work the problem on their own using tools and strategies of their choice. 
    2. During this time, your job is to look for strategies to share during discourse and coach students to push their level of thinking.
  3. Discourse (15-20 minutes) – What strategies and questions will you use to get to the lesson goal?
    1. Choose 3 or 4 students to share their strategies as you represent their thinking on a screen or board. 
    2. Have other students think about the connections, similarities, and differences with their thinking as compared to their peers.
    3. Lead the class in discourse around these strategies pushing students to make mathematical conjectures. 

Where did I learn all this, you might be asking? Lavinia Group’s Math for Meaning: Story Problems! It is an approach to teaching mathematics that uses a student’s own mathematical thinking as the basis for instruction and prepares students to independently solve math problems with joy, confidence, and precision. With these methods, you and your students will master story problems!


Learn more about the Lavinia Group’s Math Institutes including Math for Meaning: Story Problems, Targeted Small Group Instruction in Mathematics, and Achievement 101: Math.

Looking for more professional learning specific to math. Check out the following Learners Edge courses:

5154: Deep Thinking Practices for the Math Classroom

5222: Math Fluency Beyond the Basic Facts

Additional Math and Content Area Courses

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