Solving Word Problems With Three Reads

Richard Kingham | Published  August 27, 2021


One of the major differences between a novice and experienced rock climber is their process. Many novice climbers hop on a challenging route after a quick glance, without any planning. An experienced climber, by contrast, stands in front of the wall for several minutes, visualizing the climb, looking at the holds, analyzing the route from different angles, and even miming the movements on the ground. They develop a plan to solve the problem presented to them by the route.

Climbing and math are both problem-solving ventures that reward structured planning. Solving math word problems is especially difficult. Along with mathematical computation, students must read English well and distinguish between essential and nonessential information. Just as in rock climbing, the successful word problem-solver will have a structured approach. 

One structured and effective approach to solving word problems is a method called three reads. Let’s consider an example from the 5th grade STEMscopes Math curriculum to see this method in action.

First Read: What is happening in the story? 

In the three reads method, students read the same word problem three times. They first read to understand the story. Here’s that STEMscopes example:

Kabir needs seven pizzas and two cookie trays for a class party. Each pizza costs $7.85, and each cookie tray costs $12.25. Kabir has $100. 

To help students understand the content, the teacher can pose an open-ended question or assign constructive exercises: What do you notice about this problem stem? What stands out to you? List all your observations and discuss with a partner. Comprehending the context is the primary goal of this first stage.

To help students comprehend the context, teachers can also instruct their students to create a graphic organizer that illustrates the beginning, middle, and end of the word problem. For this example, your graphic organizer might look like this:

Beginning Middle End
Kabir needs pizza and cookie trays for a class party. Cost for each cookie and each pizza Kabir has $100 

Second Read: What kind of math are we working with?

While the first read is all about language and context, the second read is all about numbers. After students understand the story’s context, they can shift their focus to the quantities presented in the word problem. They should associate numbers with words at this point. For example, an entire pizza costs $7.85, a cookie tray $12.25, and Kabir possesses $100 total. Additionally, students should note that Kabir needs seven pizzas and two cookie trays. Encourage students to write down these numbers in shorthand: pizza=$7.85, cookie tray=$12.25, Kabir’s wallet=$100. These exercises help students relate the numbers to the story.

The Third Read: Putting it all together

The third read is where students solve the problem by connecting the numbers and words. In our word problem example the prompting question (i.e., how much change will Kabir have after purchasing the food?) was left out. So, students must first identify the problem. Students can identify the mathematical process: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc. Afterward, they can begin representing the problem in a model or equation.


Along with providing structure, three reads makes solving word problems less intimidating. Many students feel utterly lost when presented with a word problem. Some students will give up before even trying because they don’t know where to begin. They need a road map, and three reads is like the Google Earth of solving word problems. With this method available to them, students will feel empowered to master the art of solving word problems. 


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