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About Math Word Problems – Yet Again!
by Paul


The Pearson Adult Learning Centre offers math courses starting from upgrading levels, all the way up to senior math including Essentials Math 12, Principles Math 12, and Calculus 12.  Math word problems are part of every math course.  Word problems both test the student’s understanding of the math concepts, as well as test the student’s ability to apply the math concepts.  As a student works through solving a math word problem, one of the critical steps is to determine which mathematical operation to use.  For example, do the given values need to be added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, squared, cubed, or inverted?  Or perhaps, some other more complex operation or combination of operations needs to be applied? 

Students are sometimes unsure of which math operation to use because they may not fully understand the word problem in terms of what it describes.  Or, at times, a student may understand the word problem details, but may be uncertain of what the problem is asking to solve for.  It’s most helpful to understand completely all parts of the word problem.  Full comprehension will certainly help to solve the problem correctly.  Re-reading the problem will often help to understand it well.  However, if after re-reading once or twice the student is still unsure with which math operation to begin, then the student can just focus on any key-terms which may be found in the text of the problem.

The key-terms will suggest which operations to use.  Relying entirely on just the key-terms as a guide is not foolproof, because the terms alone may not always identify the correct operation.  However, this strategy, as a second resort to comprehending the word problem, should be fine in many, if not most, of the word problems.

The following are some of the common English key-terms or expressions that suggest one of the indicated four basic math operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.  Many math word problems can be solved with the application of just these four basic operations.  Keep in mind that the actual terms or expressions appearing in a word problem might be different than in the list below.


Suggesting Addition (+) :  sum, plus, add, added to, increased by, more than, total, combine, raise by, expand.


Suggesting Subtraction (-) :  subtract, minus, difference, subtracted from, decreased by, reduced by, take away, less, how many more, how many less.


Suggesting Multiplication (x) :  multiply, times, product, multiplied by, of.


Suggesting Division () :  divide, quotient, divided by, split into equal parts, remainder.


In addition to the four basic math operations, it’s also helpful to recognize the words or expressions which suggest setting values as equal -


Suggesting Equality (=) :  is, equals, equal to, equivalent to, makes, yields, results, gives, same as.


Therefore, before solving a math word problem, it’s best to first try to understand fully all the given details and understand what it is that you’re solving for.  Comprehending the problem will certainly help with the correct solution.  If you find the problem difficult to follow, then you could resort to relying entirely on just the key-terms as a guide although this is less reliable in reaching the correct answer.  Keep in mind that whatever your course level is in math or in any of our many other courses, you can always get help and guidance from any of our instructors.  See you at our Learning Centre!

Reference:  Some of the mentioned key-terms are found in Math Essentials (1988) by Bill Kokoskin, ISBN 0-7730-4745-x.

Test your reading comprehension of this reading!

Try some math word problems:

1. IXL Problem Solving

2. IXL Problem Solving

3. Math Playground

4. Syvum - choose a link from Arithmetic Activities 5.1 to 5.9, then click on “Quiz.”


Check the IXL math dictionary for math vocabulary.






(November 16, 2010)

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