How to Master Math Word Problems in 5 Steps


There are so many different techniques and tricks teachers use to help students learn how to solve word problems. The possibilities are truly endless. Of course, it seems everyone has difficulty solving word problems at every grade level and even into adulthood. How many of us have tried to do the mental math to solve a percentage problem so that we can fairly tip our server at a restaurant? Or tried to calculate how many tiles we will need to redo our bathroom floor? It never ends. But – as a 3rd-grade teacher, I can help you learn an easy-to-remember acronym that you can use to help your students learn how to master math word problems in 5 steps!

R.U.P.S.E. – The Acronym for Solving Word Problems

Finding a way to teach our 3rd graders how to solve word problems led to the invention of the acronym R.U.P.S.E. by my grade level team.

In our experience, students struggled with word problems because they:

  1. Didn’t read the problem carefully.
  2. Could not differentiate what was important and what was not.
  3. Didn’t understand what the problem was asking them to do.

The R.U.P.S.E. framework helps them methodically go through five steps that help avoid these problems and solve the word problem correctly.

R.U.P.S.E. is:

R – Read
U – Underline
P – Plan
S- Solve
E – Explain

R – Read the Word Problem

Sounds like a no-brainer doesn’t it? But….we have to remind students to read the problem carefully. Third graders are still learning to read with comprehension, so this is kind of a big deal.

U – Underline

We want students to read the problem carefully looking for keywords that will help them solve the problem. We also want them to find the question that they are asking.

P – Plan

How are they going to find the answer to the question in the word problem? Which math model will they need to use? What equation will help them solve the problem? Students need to make a plan.

This step can be tough for students. Having anchor charts nearby for the math concept they are working on can help if it shows the different mathematical models that can be used, contains important vocabulary, and equations.

S – Solve

Solve the problem using math models and the correct equation. Show all of their work. This is not the time for mental math.

My students were required to show all of their work – no matter what. If they don’t get the correct answer, I need to be able to see how they solved the problem. Only then can I help them find the error and correct it.

E – Explain

Explain in writing how you solved the problem. This step takes a lot of practice, but you will be amazed at how it helps them and how their writing improves!

One thing that helped my students want to write really good explanations was to pick 1 -2 students to share their writing with the class. I gave them specific feedback and praise. Every day students would beg me to let them share their explanations! They loved the attention and the feedback!

In these posts, you can see examples of multiplication and division word problems solved using R.U.P.S.E.:

How to Solve Word Problems – A Valentine’s Day Math Activity

How to Teach Division Word Problems in 3rd Grade

Model, Model, Model Solving Math Word Problems!

Your students need to see you solve word problems out loud. They need to hear your thinking and see your plan. Then they need to see you draw a math model and complete the equation. Finally, they need to watch as you explain your thinking in writing.

Modeling R.U.P.S.E. isn’t a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing math lesson throughout the school year with different math concepts. But – modeling how to go through the steps will help your students gain confidence to do it themselves.

Need Math Word Problems for Your Classroom?

I can NEVER get enough math word problems for my students! This bundle of 3rd Grade Math Word Problems can be a life-saver when you are intentionally teaching students how to solve math word problems. There are three math word problems on a page for each of these math skills:

  • 2 & 3 Digit Addition
  • 2 & 3 Digit Subtraction
  • Rounding
  • Multiplication
  • Division
  • Fractions
  • Measurement
  • Area
  • Perimeter
  • Elapsed Time
  • Data Analysis
  • Geometry

You can use this packet of word problems in so many ways – bellwork, homework, small group instruction, centers, and exit tickets. It’s just the perfect number of word problems to see if your students can solve a word problem and have mastered a math skill.

Save this pin to your Math Pinterest Board so you can find this post later!

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