The Hidden Agenda Of Two-Step Word Problems In Math

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Have you ever wondered about the hidden agenda of two-step word problems in math is?  There are a number, so let's take a few minutes to examine these agendas in two-step word problems in math!

This blog post shares some of the hidden agendas in the two-step word problems students have to solve in math today.


Agenda Number 1

Agenda number one is that two-step word problems are introduced in second grade to prepare those students for the more complex world of word problems!  In my experience, students struggle with two-step word  problems in both second and third grades.  They are missing the very foundations needed to support the more difficult problems they encounter in 3rd grade.  So, how do we attack this problem in 2nd grade?  First, let's jump over to The Common Core Companion and see what it says!  

  • Begin with problems in which the operation is the same in both steps!  
  • Progress to two-step problems that call for different operations!  
Sounds simple, right!  But hold on!  Students are rarely ready for these steps because most math text books don't really break this process down into definable chunks!  Students are just thrown into this two-step mess and many teachers just don't know how to make this manageable because we weren't ever taught how to do this as students.  It was more age appropriate then, so we just merged into this process.  So, here's some tips on how to get kids going in the right direction with two-step math problems.  

Tip #1: Use Numberless Word Problems

This is something I have just started to explore, so I am no expert yet! However, here is a great link to some resources to help you along with this starting point.  I have decided that this year, in my second grade class, that I will be starting with this very thing, no matter where my students are. I have talked with a number of other teachers and they have reinforced the importance of numberless word problems and the success they have had with their students to transfer into numbered word problems.  I encourage you to try this too, since this will help students to defeat the need to just use the numbers and go for an answer!  I'll be sharing my success with this type of problem as well!  


Tip #2: Increase Complexity Gradually

This is SO key!  I think we want to race into word problems in all grades.  The reality is, my third graders the last two years had MAJOR problems with working with word problems because the complexity between second grade and third grade is HUGE!  So, I took it slow and worked through the word problems at a slower rate.  I had to put aside the need to enter grades into the grade book and let my students struggle through!  More on that in tip 4!  But, the key is SLOW DOWN and really reflect upon what your students need!  If you don't, they will never rise up to the complexity of the expectations in today's word problems.  

Tip #3:  Use Graphic Organizers


Yep!  We totally forget that we can use graphic organizers in math problems.  A great one to try is the Four Ways model!  Here's a quick video explaining how to use this graphic organizer!




Tip #4:  Let Your Students FAIL!

Back to Tip #2!  STOP and I mean STOP providing the steps exactly for students when they cannot solve a word problem!  If you are doing this, you are blocking their mental processes.  Students need to struggle through the process of complex problems without teacher input.  I have students come to me with their work, circle the word problems they need to work on, and send them back to their seats to work on them!  This comes with a shocked expression the first few times I do this, because they just want you to tell them if they are right and, if not, just mark it wrong. These are smart kids, they know when they don't get it!  They know when it is "beyond their reach" when, in reality, they have been just trained that answers are right or wrong and they don't need to worry if they don't know it!  NOPE!  Take their failure and turn it back to them as a challenge!  They CAN do these more complex problems within their own skill set, but offer support in the process.  This can simply be reading the problem out loud to them!  It always surprises me when their eyes pop when they hear the problem out loud!  One word of caution-you do need to read when students are totally lost.  That is NOT the first time they fail!  It is continual processing problems or the lack of support students are getting from their peers-either by choice or by the fact that they cannot comprehend what the problem is really saying!  Then you can step in with support and guidance.  I have done this with individuals, small groups, and even whole class!  Then, throw up a problem just like it and make them struggle through!  This pushes the process to their long-term processing!  BONUS!  

Tip #5:  Let Your Students TALK!  

This ties directly to Tip #4!  Students need to discuss and debate the information they find in word problems.  Give them time to dig into these problems as a team.  Watch for accountable talk within this process.  It is important to keep an ear out for precision in language and, let's be honest, on-task behavior!  Students should be working on sequencing and connecting information in the word problem together.  Watch for pairs that work well, and those that use this as social hour.  You will see amazing results in finding teams that work and challenge each other.  One more idea on this-while you are listening, watch for students that just give answers!  There is a point where interventions have to be made with this.  I have class meetings to provide ground rules and this is one of the things that we discuss.  When it happens, instead of talking about cheating, make those that did explain WHY!  And, more importantly, the students who provided the answer CANNOT talk to them once the WHY is in place! This will quickly teach those who rely on others that you mean business and they need to know what they are doing with word problems!  

TIp #6  Use a Rubric to Show Success and Growth

This is NOT a scoring device, but rather a success device in the form of a rubric!  This rubric lays out the clear expectations of growth in the use of two-step word problems in third grade.  Students can come to the chart and check the expectations across the year.  This is easily adaptable to second grade as well.  I printed this out, hung it on my wall, and went over the expectations with my students.  They would use the rubric regularly to check in!  I would use the rubric regularly to discover who was still struggling and who was soaring.  Then I would also watch my groups to be sure that there was balance and that too much information was not being given freely!  

This is a rubric that you can print and hang in your classroom that helps students chart their growth in One-and Two-Step Word Problems.


Agenda Number 2

The second agenda of two-step word problems in math is to move students into multi-step word problems in fourth grade!  Yep, it just keeps getting better!  Late in third grade, multi-step problems come into play, and students need to understand that there is even more growth coming.  If they have not mastered the two-step problem, imagine the difficulty with multi-step word problems!  The good news is, all of the steps above work for multi-step problems too!  Just head right back to the top, and work your way through!  And, here's a rubric for these problems too!

This is a rubric for helping students gain skill in Multi-Step Word Problems that you can print and hang in a classroom.


As you can see, the hidden agenda of two-step word problems in math is a true agenda with a greater purpose beyond the obvious to teachers and students in both 2nd and 3rd grade.  I'd love to hear your thoughts, so drop a comment below to let everyone know your great idea!  And, join me regularly over at my blog, The Best Days!


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by Julie from The Best Days

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