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Use Visual Representations for Word Problems


Mathematics All Ages Strategy


Verbal Reasoning Abstract Reasoning Spatial Perception

Use Visual Representations for Word Problems

If your student dives into word problems without fully understanding what is being asked or having a plan for solving

Teach It!

  1. Objective: Students will draw or use pictures to solve word problems so they can visualize what is being asked and more easily identify what to do.
  2. Direct Instruction: Explain why pictures help. Word problems are like stories with math. You need to figure out which math operation(s) to do to understand the outcome of the story. Drawing out pieces of the problem will help you picture that information like a story.
  3. Model and Practice: a) With the class, read a word problem out loud without drawing. b) Ask and discuss: What is this problem about? c) Next, read the problem a 2nd time, stopping to draw a picture or representation of each piece of information (i.e. people, objects or spatial concepts) involved. Use lines and symbols to represent words where possible. Refer to vocabulary that indicates which operation they might use. d) Solve the problem together using the visuals.
  4. Class Activity: Give students a word problem to draw. Working in pairs, students share their drawings and discuss what was helpful in the drawings and what they might adopt next time. Repeat regularly for word problems in class. Make the visual representation part of the assignment, leaving space for it on any worksheets.
  5. Teacher Notes: Keep drawings simple. Use basic shapes such as rectangles, circles, or stick figures. Use arrows and include labels as needed. Remind students that neatness and clarity are far more important than art skills. This is particularly important for students with weaker visual memory or spatial perception.

*print* Student Checklist: Drawing Word Problems

  1. Read the problem one time through.
  2. Read through the problem again and stop to draw each new piece of information into a picture or diagram of the story.
  3. Keep the picture simple and neat. Use basic shapes such as rectangles, circles or stick figures. Use arrows, labels or words to help you make connections to the problem you will solve.
  4. Use your picture or diagram to help you create an equation and solve.

Why It Works (the Science Of Learning)!

Picturing a problem offers a concrete way for students to organize the information, understand the question and identify a solution. Pictures enable students to more effectively visualize math problems. Note that students with a learning disability often do not create accurate visual representations or use them strategically to solve problems, so providing a picture or visual for them will be important in helping them effectively use visual representations when solving.

Best-suited for students with weaker: Attention, Inhibition/Impulsivity, Long-Term Memory, Reasoning, Working Memory, Processing Speed (Source: Digital Promise Learner Variability Project)