Why using clue words to solve word problems could be so misleading

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Do a search on Pinterest for math clue words anchor chart and you’ll be inundated with super cute, super creative anchor charts with clue words for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

As a math coach I get to visit classrooms daily and cringe every time I see one of these anchor charts staring defiantly at the confused students. I understand word problems are a struggle for kids but using clue words to figure out the operation needed to solve is a big big big MISTAKE.
Pretend you are a second grader and your teacher has shared this beautiful anchor chart and told you to underline the clue words and use the anchor chart to figure out what you need to to.
Here are some of the problems you are to solve:
 
1. 23 ducks were swimming in a pond. Some ducks joined them. Now there are 71. How many ducks joined them?
 
So, you of course would underline the words joined and check the anchor chart. According to the anchor chart, the word “join” means addition. That means I need to add 23 + 71 right?
WRONG!
This problem calls for subtraction since one of the parts is missing and the whole is given (71). So, the word “joined” did not mean add in this specific problem.
So much for the anchor chart!
2. Martha put some Christmas cookies on a plate. After Jacob ate 5 cookies, 18 cookies remain. How many cookies did Martha put on the plate?
 
According to the anchor chart, the word “remains” means you need to subtract. But again, in this problem we need to find the “whole”, which means you need to add!
Once again, the anchor chart has left you disappointed.
3. Susie has 29 fewer marbles than Mary. Susie has 98 marbles. How many marbles does Mary have?
 
What do you think most students would do in this problem? You guessed it SUBTRACT!
Why? I bet most of them would say “because it has the word “fewer”, which means subtract.”
But we know better. We know that students need to add in this problem. Oh boy! Your poor kiddos must be so confused by that Pinterest perfect anchor chart that took you your whole prep period to create!
So, you must be wondering… “OK, what do I do then?” Don’t worry, I’ll share the best solution to this problem.
Solution: Stop using the clue word approach to figure out what operation to perform in a word problem. Doing so encourages young learners to strip the numbers from the problem and use these clue words to figure out what computation to perform. Instead use part/part whole models and bar models to find the solution to these problems
When students have had enough practice using these models, they learn to visualize word problems through modeling. Studies have shown that using these models increases problem solving ability and accuracy.
What method do you use with your students to teach word problems? Leave me a comment. I would love to hear from you!

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