Two Trains, Traveling in Opposite Directions… Word Problems and the Math Fluency Gap

Administrator Blog Series, Part 1

January 15, 2016


In the Classroom, For Admins

Math fluency is a nagging problem in our schools nationwide, but there are some surprisingly tangible actions we can take to close the gap. Kevin Baird, the Chairman at the Center for College & Career Readiness, shared his insights previously in a webinar in partnership with IXL. We’re highlighting some of his points here, but also keep an eye on our upcoming webinars page to attend future sessions!

What’s Holding Students Back?

The math fluency gap is a broad, complex problem with a scope that’s far too large to cover in one blog post. So, we’ve prioritized one specific issue that teachers can target effectively.

Word problems. The phrase alone is enough to strike terror into the hearts of students everywhere. And they are a struggle for many students because they demand an ability to fluently apply math concepts to complex, real-world problems. When the Center for College & Career Readiness examined data from a variety of standardized tests, including the Smarter Balanced and PARCC Field Tests, they found that over 60% of students considered the math problems on the test more difficult than their school work. In particular, text-based and multi-step problems posed major challenges. Furthermore, roughly 30% of students stated that either most or all of the math questions on the test were completely new to them. Such statistics indicate that students are having trouble recognizing the math concepts embedded in the word problems.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Given that word problems are causing students such difficulty on tests, they clearly need more practice with these types of problems, on a regular basis.

Teachers can start by helping students learn how to read and interpret the math-specific vocabulary of word problems. Present a word problem (as part of whole-class or small-group instruction) and ask students to discuss questions, such as:

  • What do we know about the problem?
  • What do we need to solve?
  • What math strategies should we use?
  • How can we solve the problem?

It may also help students to highlight or underline key words in the problem or to write out their strategies for and definitions of math concepts they encounter.

Then, make sure to expose students to progressively difficult word problems, preferably broken into discrete skills at first. As students practice on easier problems focused on specific math components, they’ll start to recognize connections between text and math equations, enabling them to translate words into mathematical expressions. Once students demonstrate mastery of each level of word problem, gradually ratchet up the difficulty and begin incorporating broader math concepts and multi-step problems. Adaptive programs like IXL provide these features. On IXL, for example, each math concept is broken into MicroSkills, which act like building blocks for students to master individually. Additionally, IXL automatically adjusts the difficulty level of problems based on a student’s demonstrated ability.

Through this process, students will develop the fluency and confidence necessary to identify the math concepts in unfamiliar word problems, setting them up for a future of math success.

What steps have you taken to help your school or district’s students achieve math fluency? Let us know in the comments below! And, stay tuned over the next few weeks for more posts in our administrator blog series, where we’ll address strategies to help your teachers and students excel this school year.

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All Comments (3)

Christopher Brown March 19, 2016 at 9:55 am

Math fluency is very important. We need to teach students how to solve word problems by answering exactly what the word problem is askingl, and apply the math computation accordingly.


Kim March 20, 2016 at 11:47 am

My previous third graders were very strong in answering and understanding word problems and were able to use a “four square” method to tackle them. At that time we were taking a paper and pencil state test… THEN we were switched to the PARCC where they now take it on the computer. Computer testing for 9 years olds requires not only reading a computer screen, but transferring information to scratch paper, using computer tools to try to manipulate text, then try to use a drawing box to compute your answer and finally explain. Often times I feel that it is not, not knowing the concepts but how to now use a computer to compute the answer. Are we testing computer skills or math concepts?


The IXL Team March 21, 2016 at 11:15 am

Hi Kim, you bring up some good points! In another blog post (, we talk about some additional findings from the Center for College & Career Readiness: “… students who took a standardized test on the computer struggled to finish, compared to their peers taking the paper version. Specifically, for language arts, 6% of students rushed to finish or did not finish the computer-based test while only 3% of students did so for the paper-based test. It was even worse for math, where 13% of students had trouble finishing the computer test, but that number was only 9% for the paper version.”


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