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The Secret to Decoding Basic Word Problems

There comes a time in a student’s life when a dreaded thing happens to their math assignments… the numbers start getting overrun by words!  There are words everywhere and numbers hiding here and there.  Ahh!

While word problems can be intimidating to any typical student, they can seem downright impossible to figure out for the student with language disorders.  But what can we do about it?  Is math really something we should address in our language sessions?  Absolutely!  And here’s why… it’s about decoding the language of math.

I teach students how to decode the question and figure out what it is asking them to do.  The calculating is up to them and their teachers to work on.  Once students know what to do with the numbers, the battle is half won.  To work on the specific vocabulary, you can make flash cards with the students, make reference sheets for their desks, make posters to hang on your walls, or play math word bingo.  Do whatever you need for them to learn the following words and what they mean.  Then, do example word problems from their math books to help them practice decoding the questions.  Have them look for the “key words” in the question and figure out what to do.

Add: Subtract: Multiply: Divide:
all together more (than) product quotient
in all less (than) area distribute
sum difference times share
total change   per

I recently printed out business cards with these words on them for my language students in third-fifth grades to have on their desks.  All of their teachers asked me if they could have some for the rest of the class too.  Of course!  You can have them too!  Print them out on standard perforated business card paper or on plain paper and cut them apart.

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Becky,
    We learn more and more everyday that this Math vocabulary is the key to Math success in the upper el grades! You are completely right – we now have literacy activities during Math time, including writing and word study, which boosts students’ problem solving abilities. Thanks for sharing the cards!

  2. Hi Becky,

    Where can I find your math vocabulary cards?
    Any materials that can help my students with math vocabulary would be so appreciated. Thank you.


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