For many of us, reminiscing about our school days and doing word problems does not bring happy memories. Finally, we learned some math calculations, and then a story was added to it. I’m a visual learner, so reading a few sentences and having to create a math problem from it was a nightmare.
Of course, in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t common to say, “Hey, this child could use some visual support. Let’s give her a visual organizer so she can plan out her thoughts.”
That may be an accommodation that is appropriate for your child or student.
IEP Goals for Math Word Problems
What is a math word problem? What is a multi-step word problem? Why are word problem goals important? Is there a better term for these?
On the IEPs that I write, I call them life skills mathematics. Because that is what a math word problem is–applying real-life scenarios to math.
Some schools refer to math word problems as math story problems. And that’s just what we’re doing–telling a story and applying math.
Math Word Problems
We start out by showing pictures of objects being put together or taken away, but really we are teaching our kids how to navigate life. These skills are equal in importance to their reading goals.
Our kids need to know when to add, subtract, multiply, or divide in real-life situations. So, yes, first they need to be reaching not only decoding but comprehension goals.
Equally important is finding evidence-based strategies for reaching word problem IEP goals, or as I like to say, life skills mathematics goals. Also, in this day and age, our kids need to be adept with a calculator as well.
Needless to say, the child’s present levels will factor into the selection of these goals.
It begins with ensuring that our little ones are grasping that putting things together is adding it all up and when things are removed, they are being taken away. I teach high schoolers with Intellectual Disabilities and we actually have a song or mnemonic device to remember, “put it all together and add it all up” as we take our left and right hand and make a + sign.
For subtraction, we have another one that goes “when things are taken away we subtract,” and we make a sweeping motion with our hands to indicate the – sign.
In a school setting, you may see a worksheet with cookies or oranges on it. In real life, this story problem would be putting items in a shopping cart. And, maybe remove them if you don’t have enough money.
For my students, I want them to be able to go into a store and purchase something and know they are receiving the correct change. While we work on doing this manually, my goal is for them to be adept with a calculator.
The crucial part of writing a word problem, (or life skills mathematics, sorry I can’t help it!) IEP goal is that they are mastering which operation to use. We need to find evidence-based multisensory, hands-on strategies for mirroring real-life situations to reach word problem IEP goals.
In our class, we have real money along with our calculators to buy and return items in our mock situations. This gets more difficult to do as they get older and situations cannot be recreated but we can still tell stories and teach them to put themselves in those situations.
Here we begin to talk about the multi-step word problem! Once we have mastered when to use which operation, we can apply it to the multi-step word problem.
A multi-step word problem requires more than one step or mathematical operation to solve it. Lest we forget the word problems that are missing a piece (ex. There were 7 people in the pool when I arrived. By the time I left there were 15. How many people came to the pool?)
Let’s write IEP goals and list some teaching strategies for all types of word problems.
We will write some SMART goals for word problems.
ELEMENTARY Word Problem IEP Goal
When word problems are read to Jesse and he is prompted to use strategies, Jesse can solve one-step word problems and understand which operation (addition or subtraction) to use to complete the problem with answers up to 30 with 80% accuracy in 3 out of 5 trials by June 2023.
SPECIFIC: one step; addition or subtraction; answers up to 20, knowing which operation
MEASURABLE: 80% accuracy in 3 out of 5 trials
ACHIEVABLE: Yes, I know my student can add and subtract and knows our classroom strategies for understanding which operation to use
RELEVANT: This child has the needed foundation as listed in IEP Present Levels, and the goal is related to his/her identified needs.
TIME MEASURED: 80% accuracy by June 2023
SECONDARY Word Problem IEP Goal
Sam will read a multi-step word problem independently and using learned strategies, compute with a calculator knowing which operation to use (+,-,x,/), and show the steps in the work in 8 out of 10 trials with 100% accuracy by June 2023.
These goals consistently require the student to use learned strategies.
This child has the needed foundation as listed in IEP Present Levels, and the goal is related to his/her identified needs.
First, word problems should be done regularly, even if sometimes done as a “do now”, “exit ticket”, or homework. Other times formal lessons go over learned concepts and possibly add new ones.
Word Problem Teaching Strategies and Accommodations
Remember that a student will need a certain level of executive functioning skills to do math word problems. If a student is repeatedly “stuck” on word problems despite many accommodations and teaching strategies, assess their EF skills to see if they have the foundation to apply math skills to the scenarios.
- Teach kids to draw the items in the word problem
- Use manipulatives where applicable
- Ask students to tell you what the problem is asking
- Tell students to visualize what is being asked and which operation will help solve it
- Use play money where applicable
- Read, Think, Write, Draw
- Visual graphic organizers
- Circle important information, or highlight it
- Cross out unnecessary information
- Talk through the word problem with the student
- Use of a calculator as appropriate
- Show link and relevance to real life
- For older students, explicit instruction in the mastering of algebraic notation for solving more complicated word problems
For students with disabilities, explicit instruction is needed with evidence-based strategies.
An excellent site to jump to is What Works Clearinghouse (https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/). Type in word problems and you will get evidence-based strategies with resources including videos in addition to a wealth of information.
It is also good practice to keep our kids in the loop by giving them a receipt from the store and having them use the calculator to check the answer and ask questions in the store, at home, or anywhere that will challenge them to think of a mathematical solution.
Just as reading and writing are necessary skills to master, so are mastering word problems as they are needed in everyday life.
Once again, I want to thank Linda for helping with this post.
Linda Gilmartin is a high school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults.