Word problems often confuse students simply because the question does not present itself in a ready-to-solve mathematical equation. You can answer even the most complex word problems, provided you understand the mathematical concepts addressed. While the degree of difficulty may change, the way to solve word problems involves a planned approach that requires identifying the problem, gathering the relevant information, creating the equation, solving and checking your work.
Identify the Problem
Begin by determining the scenario the problem wants you to solve. This might come as a question or a statement. Either way, the word problem provides you with all the information you need to solve it. Once you identify the problem, you can determine the unit of measurement for the final answer. In the following example, the question asks you to determine the total number of socks between the two sisters. The unit of measurement for this problem is pairs of socks.
"Suzy has eight pairs of red socks and six pairs of blue socks. Suzy's brother Mark owns eight socks. If her little sister owns nine pairs of purple socks and loses two of Suzy's pairs, how many pairs of socks do the sisters have left?"
Create a table, list, graph or chart that outlines the information you know, and leave blanks for any information you don't yet know. Each word problem may require a different format, but a visual representation of the necessary information makes it easier to work with.
In the example, the question asks how many socks the sisters own together, so you can disregard the information about Mark. Also, the color of the socks doesn't matter. This eliminates much of the information and leaves you with only the total number of socks that the sisters started with and how many the little sister lost.
Create an Equation
Translate any of the math terms into math symbols. For example, the words and phrases "sum," "more than," "increased" and "in addition to" all mean to add, so write in the "+" symbol over these words. Use a letter for the unknown variable, and create an algebraic equation that represents the problem.
In the example, take the total number of pairs of socks Suzy owns -- eight plus six. Take the total number of pairs that her sister owns -- nine. The total pairs of socks owned by both sisters is 8 + 6 + 9. Subtract the two missing pairs for a final equation of (8 + 6 + 9) - 2 = n, where n is the number of pairs of socks the sisters have left.
Solve the Problem
Using the equation, solve the problem by plugging in the values and solving for the unknown variable. Double-check your calculations along the way to prevent any mistakes. Multiply, divide and subtract in the correct order using the order of operations. Exponents and roots come first, then multiplication and division, and finally addition and subtraction.
In the example, after adding the numbers together and subtracting, you get an answer of n = 21 pairs of socks.
Verify the Answer
Check if your answer makes sense with what you know. Using common sense, estimate an answer and see if you come close to what you expected. If the answer seems absurdly large or too small, search through the problem to find where you went wrong.
In the example, you know by adding up all the numbers for the sisters that you have a maximum of 23 socks. Since the problem mentions that the little sister lost two pairs, the final answer must be less than 23. If you get a higher number, you did something wrong. Apply this logic to any word problem, regardless of the difficulty.
About the Author
Avery Martin holds a Bachelor of Music in opera performance and a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian studies. As a professional writer, she has written for Education.com, Samsung and IBM. Martin contributed English translations for a collection of Japanese poems by Misuzu Kaneko. She has worked as an educator in Japan, and she runs a private voice studio out of her home. She writes about education, music and travel.