After I had decided to have a routine of problem solving using word problems with my class, I knew I needed a routine, and one that would require the students to do some thinking and definitely a little productive struggle.

Part of that productive struggle involved using spiraled practice. This means that we would work on problems with a number of different math topics, so they couldn’t just call automatically on whatever skill is in your focus unit, but instead have to really pull from their overall math understanding.

Here’s how I went about introducing and helping my students to become more independent with problem solving with word problems.

1.Practice the first few days together:

I was able to upload the PDF file to SMART NOTEBOOK which is what my district used and then I was able to write over it. You could also print them in a larger size.  I practiced reading and thinking aloud together with my students. I modeled identifying words that helped me to figure out which information I needed and how to work through the problem by following the steps.

2. Gradual release:

While I don’t always think gradual release is the most effective way to stretch our students, when I am developing a routine I’d like for them to be independent with, helping to wean them toward that independence is worth the investment. I started by having them practice reading the problem and drawing a picture together. Then we would discuss/ share those representations and write the equation together.  Eventually they were ready for independent practice.

3.Productive struggle:

When we moved toward independence, I really left these problems up to them as math problem solvers. If I had a student who wasn’t reading at all, I might go over and whisper read the problem to them after they tried to pick out some important keywords. Then I let them go on their own. Draw their own picture, write an equation, fill in the answer sentence.

The perks of watching that productive struggle were many. I was able to throw them into problem solving situations to see what strategies they employed naturally through their own thinking process. Then, if any students needed any coaching I could do that through student work samples, or through 1:1 coaching.

4. Feedback-

This comes in a few different forms. As I mentioned sometimes I would display two student papers using our document cam anonymously. I ask “What do you notice” and “What are you wondering”. This helped the students to really become reflective about their own representations of the problem and strategies to solve. Then students are often ready to self correct. Sometimes I just asked students to raise their hands when they had completed all the parts of the problem and I’d go around with a sticker or stamp to add to their “I Did It!” box.


While there were often school days off, assemblies or special events that limited our ability to problem solve absolutely EVERY day, we would try to use these spiraled word problem practice journals at least 15 days a month.  This is in addition to whatever practice we’re doing relating to our current topic of study.

I did try out using these during math centers, but I found that this was really most effective at the end of the month if we had some problems to finish up, and since the feedback was not immediate I found it to be less effective than when we all spent 10 minutes at the end of the math block problem solving.

If you’re interested in checking out my problem solving journals, CLICK HERE

To read more about why I love spiraled math review, check out this post!