Math Signal Words for Solving Math Problems

Signal words can help students solve math problems.
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In math, being able to read and understand what a question is asking you to do is just as important as the basic skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Students should be introduced to key verbs, or signal words, that appear frequently in math problems and practice solving problems that use these terms.


The following words in a math problem signal that addition should be used: increase, and, plus, sum, more than, add, combine, total. Some examples of how these terms are used include:

Find the sum of two and four. What does two plus four equal? What is the total of two and four? Combine two and four. What is four more than two? Increase two by four.


The words decrease, minus, subtract, difference, less, take away, spent, left, how much less, and fewer all signal that subtraction should be used to solve a problem. The same math problem could be written in the following ways:

What is three minus nine? Decrease nine by three. What is the difference of nine and three? What is three less than nine? Subtract three from nine. Take away three from nine. If he spent three of his nine dollars, how much money does he have left? How much less is something that costs three dollars than something that costs nine dollars? If I have three apples and you have nine apples, how many fewer apples do I have?


To determine if multiplication should be used to solve a problem, have students look for the following signal words: product, times, tripled, doubled, each, per. For example:

What is the product of seven and nine? What is seven times nine? What is seven tripled? What is nine doubled? Seven CDs cost nine dollars each. What is the total cost? You want to buy nine shirts. The cost is seven dollars per shirt. What is your total cost?


Split, share, quotient and half all signal that the problem requires the use of division to solve. Some example problems include:

Split 15 three ways. You have 15 apples and want to share them equally between yourself and two friends. How many apples will each person get? What is the quotient of 15 and three? What is half of 15? What is three out of 15?

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