One of the issues with children doing maths word problems is that they often know that all the information listed for them will definitely be needed and relevant to the problem. This means they very quickly skim over the content and write what they think is the right answer.
Example: There are six red cats on the carpet. Four white cats come along and sit on the carpet. Then five dogs come along. How many cats are on the carpet now?
Many students will immediately do 6+4+5=15 even though they have been told only to count cats.
To counter this, I used something that one of my tutors recommended. Give a group of 4 children a word problem with 4 clues to solve it. One of the pupils reads the question out loud. Everyone takes a clue and one at a time they read it out loud and show it to their group. The students have to decide which information is needed to answer the question and which is not needed. Once they’ve decided, they can work through the maths necessary to find the answer.
Example question: How many monkeys were in the zoo?
Clue 1: There were 35 animals in the zoo.
Clue 2: There were 10 lions in the zoo.
Clue3: There were half as many monkeys as there were lions.
Clue 4: There were 12 giraffes in the zoo.
I’d start off by giving an oral problem to the class (like the first example) and seeing if they fall into the ‘trap’ of just adding everything up. Next, model the word problem task with one group first.
When they first attempt this activity, you could have the children work as a group to solve the problem. Later when they are comfortable with what is expected of them they could work individually on a problem first before having a ‘showdown’ of their answers when they have all finished to see if they reached the same answer. Finally, pupils can coach each other and correct any errors as needed.
You could even have one or two problems where the children aren’t able to find out the answer to the question with the information they have. Just mentioning that this might be the case will slow your class down a little and get them to really consider what they need to do and what information is important. If you do decide to include an ‘unsolvable’ problem, you can extend the learning by asking the pupils to tell you what information they would need in order to make their problem solvable.