Tackling two-step word problems at Prescott

Kaylee Tolle paused and shifted her eyes toward the ceiling. She was deep in thought. 

“I have a problem I need your help solving,” Tolle said to her second-grade students at Prescott Elementary School.

Specifically, a two-step word problem, which was that day’s math lesson. The problem was projected on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. She asked for volunteers to read the problem aloud for the rest of the class. 

”There are 14 computers in the school library,” a boy named Ahnor said. “Five girls and three boys are each using a computer right now. How many more children can use a computer?”

Before they dug into the word problem, Tolle reminded students of a strategy they discussed the previous day. “Before you start a word problem, you should stop and think. Why is it important for us to stop...and think? Olivia, why is that important?”

“Because we need to know what to do and what not to do,” Olivia said. “Yes, that was perfect,” Tolle replied, before adding an encouraging phrase her students are used to hearing: “Kiss your brain!”

Thousands of Lincoln Public Schools second-graders across 39 elementary schools are working on two-step word problems right now. The goal - and what’s included in state standards - is for students to learn math in a way that gives it context, so they understand how they can use math every day.

LPS K-2 Mathematics Coordinator Susie Katt said Tolle’s lesson was a great example of that philosophy. 

“Math isn’t just about solving the problem,” she said. “It’s really an opportunity for them to think about what addition and subtraction mean.”

Tolle and her class deliberately moved through the process of solving the problem. It involved answering multiple questions along the way, including:

  • The word problem is asking for what missing information?
  • What is the “hidden” question it asks? In this case, the stated question is, “How many more children can use a computer?” The hidden question is: “How many children are currently using a computer?”
  • They figured out how many students are currently using computers by using the equation 3 + 5 = 8. Now what equation did they need to figure out how many more students could use a computer?

The class landed on the following equation to answer the problem’s main question: 14 - 8 equals...

“Thinking… thinking…,” Tolle told her students. “This one should be fast because we just worked on it last week.” 

“Six!” the students responded.

“Good job!”

Published: October 9, 2019, Updated: October 9, 2019

"Math isn’t just about solving the problem. It’s really an opportunity for them to think about what addition and subtraction mean."

Susie Katt, LPS K-2 mathematics coordinator