Language of Math Word Problems

The language contained in math word problems is often abstract, causing difficulty for students with language deficits.  It is essential that students realize the mathematical operation that these words signal.  Although I am not a math tutor, I have spent many an hour working with clients on the setting up of word problems.  

First, they need to learn these concepts–which is hopefully being done in a multi-sensory manner by the math instructor.  We, as language educators, SLPs and parents can reinforce these concepts, moving from hands-on materials, to representative methods, using paper and/or technology.  I usually start by creating pictorial representations, discussing with the student what is happening in the language “story” (word problem). After this, we set the problem up using numbers.  

As students move into higher elementary and middle school years, this pictorial step is often omitted; the assumption being that this step is unnecessary.  Next week, I will share how to use Notability to easily draw, duplicate, combine, etc., which is difficult to do using paper.

This chart of words and operations was accessed from the purplemath website, which is a helpful site for math:

Stapel, Elizabeth.
“Translating Word Problems: Keywords.” Purplemath. Available from
Accessed 05 November 2014

© Elizabeth Stapel 2000-2011 All Rights Reserved

Addition increased
more than
combined, together
total of
sum, plus
added to
Subtraction decreased
minus, less
difference between/of
less than,
fewer than
Multiplication of
times, multiplied by
product of
by a
  factor of (this type can
both addition or
  subtraction and
Division per,
out of
ratio of, quotient of
percent (divide by
Equals is,
are, was, were, will be
gives, yields
sold for