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Elementary Math Word Problem Key Words and Their Limitations

When you tell your students you will be working on word problems, do you hear a chorus of groans? If so, you are not alone! Teaching students how to solve math word problems tends to not be the most exciting math exercise in an elementary math curriculum (especially not learning about word problem key words and how they can be used to solve problems). They also tend to be very challenging for students. No wonder many students don’t like them!

In order for students to become proficient in mathematics, however, they need to apply their math learning to real life situations, which can be achieved through word problems. This experience should not be about following rote procedures and computing correct responses. When solving these types of problems, it is important for students to apply multiple strategies to make sense of the problem and solve it. These experiences should be grounded in strategy application and problem solving, rather than simply computation.

Identifying word problem key words is one of many strategies elementary students can use to help them solve single and multi-step word problems. Additionally, students need access to anchor charts, tools, and manipulatives that will equip them with the resources they need for these problem solving experiences. Using keywords for math word problems is just one piece of the puzzle!

This blog post will answer the following questions:

  • What are word problem key words?
  • What are some examples of keywords for addition word problems?
  • Can you share some examples of keywords for subtraction word problems?
  • What are some examples of keywords for multiplication word problems?
  • Can you share some examples of keywords for division word problems?
  • What are the limitations of using keywords to solve word problems?
  • Is using word problem keywords an effective strategy?

What are Word Problem Key Words?

Word problem key words are words or phrases that signal which operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division) are needed in order to solve a math word problem.

Using keywords for math word problems (often referred to as clue words and phrases) is a strategy to make sense of and solve word problems. It is the idea of training the brain to look for specific words and phrases to determine what mathematical operations are needed. Here is an example of this strategy in practice:

Erin reads the problem: Pat has 3 red shirts. He has 2 blue shirts. How many red and blue shirts does he have in all? After reading through the problem once, Erin rereads the problem but this time she is looking specifically for the clue words and phrases she has learned. She highlights or underlines the phrase “in all.” She has learned in class that “in all” signals to the reader that they need to add. This strategy has helped her make sense of the problem (which in this case means that the addition operation is needed), set up an equation (3 + 2 = ?), and solve for the answer (5 shirts).

a teacher showing students how to use word problem key words in math

Common Math Word Problem Key Words and Phrases

Below is a list of key words and phrases that students can use to solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division word problems. If you teach the younger grades, you’ll find the list of addition and subtraction key words helpful. If you teach the older grades, you’ll find those helpful, as well as the multiplication and division key words.

Addition Key Words

Here are some examples of addition key words:

  • add
  • altogether
  • both
  • combine
  • in all
  • increase
  • increased by
  • larger
  • larger than
  • longer
  • longer than
  • more
  • more than
  • perimeter
  • plus
  • sum
  • together
  • total

Subtraction Key Words

Here are some examples of subtraction key words:

  • change
  • decreased
  • difference
  • fewer
  • gave away
  • How many more…?
  • How many less…?
  • left
  • left over
  • less
  • less than
  • minus
  • remain
  • shorter than
  • smaller than
  • take away
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Multiplication Key Words

Here are some examples of multiplication key words:

  • area
  • cubed
  • double
  • each
  • groups
  • per
  • product
  • quadruple
  • rows
  • squared
  • times
  • triple

Division Key Words

Here are some examples of division key words:

  • average
  • divide
  • each
  • equal group
  • fourth
  • half
  • quarter
  • quotient
  • ratio
  • share
  • separate
  • split
  • third
elementary students solving word problems digitally

Limitations of Using Keywords to Solve Word Problems

When students are learning how to solve word problems, it is beneficial for them to be exposed to, directly taught, and given practice with key words (also sometimes written as word problem keywords or keywords for math word problems). However, students need to understand that problems can be solved in many different ways. This is just one tool in their toolkit.  It is not always the most effective strategy to solve a given word problem. For example, students should not be trained to always subtract when they see the word less because they could use a missing addend from addition to solve.  This strategy should be used along with other strategies (e.g. visualization). As students progress through their math education and come across more challenging word problems, this strategy will become less effective. As a result, your students need to be equipped with an abundance of diverse strategies.

We would love for you to try these word problem resources with your students. It offers them opportunities to practice applying word problem key words strategies, as well as other problem solving strategies. You can download word problem worksheets specific to your grade level (along with lots of other math freebies) in our free printable math resources bundle using this link: free printable math activities for elementary teachers.

Check out my monthly word problem resources!

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