Problem solving

When it comes to solving problems, children are sometimes told to use RUCSAC- read, understand, calculation, solve, answer, check. But what does this actually mean? And how does it help children to solve problems?

Here are some strategies to use with your classes to develop the problem solving process. You probably already use lots of these techniques, but hopefully there are some useful ideas here. If you have any other tips or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Knowing what specific mathematical vocabulary means and how to apply it to context is an important starting point. Activities such as these provide an opportunity to explore specific maths vocabulary.

Understanding what a reasonable answer is
Having some kind of reasonable answer indicator means that children have something to check their answer against. This also may prevent unit mistakes of, say, £35 instead of 35p!

Questions with hidden numbers
When first introducing word problems, I always hide the numbers to begin with. This means that different methods can be discussed and explored without children instantly jumping in and just adding the first numbers they see! Once a method has been agreed, the numbers are revealed and children can then complete the calculations.

Don’t make it obvious
If your lesson is on short division, any word problems will be using short division so it removes the challenge of working out the calculation. Try to ensure that they have to think about the calculations needed, e.g.,
-Molly runs 956 m every single day. How far will she run in a week?
-Sienna is 134 cm, Mark is 127 cm and Lewis is 143 cm. What is the difference in height between the tallest and shortest child?
-Mia and each of her two friends share £486 equally between them. How much will they get each?
-Year 4 raised £454, Year 5 raised £461 and Year 6 raised £403. How much did the oldest two classes make in total?

If you have Maths Meetings (or some other time outside of the maths lesson to look at an aspect of maths), these can be used to unpick word problems outside of a maths lesson means that children will have a chance to practise finding the operation needed.

Being familiar with known facts
Being able to see the relationships between numbers and draw on known multiplication/ division or addition/ subtraction facts will help children to see the patterns. With a good understanding of times table and the related facts, questions such as 120 x 12 can be tackled mentally rather than using long multiplication.

Annotating and note writing
Helpful highlighting and annotation of word problems and creating a plan of action slows the process down and gives children a chance to think through the problem. It is crucial that this is modelled, rather than just ‘highlight the key words’.

Bar models
Bar models can be so useful for visualising a problem and working out what needs to be done. If you haven’t used them before, I would start by representing missing number calculations, then applying the same skills to word problems.

True or false examples featuring common misconceptions
Children can use completed questions to prove or disprove answers and find errors. These can be great for partner or whole class discussion. Here you can find my badly completed SATs papers.

Here’s the answer, but how could you get there?
By already having the answer given, the challenge lies in working out a method to get there.

Scaffolding and supporting the problem-solving process
-Pre-highlighting the relevant information
-Providing partially completed bar models
-Providing a worked example of a similar question
-Giving two answers or solutions for children to evaluate

Here you can find a PowerPoint featuring all of the above. If you’re a maths lead, it may be useful for leading training in school.

Published by

Sarah F

I'm a year 6 teacher in Bristol with an English Language degree who loves reading, writing and anything creative. Follow me on Twitter @SarahFarrellKS2

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