Problem Solving in the Primary Grades

Are you sitting down?!  Good.  Because this may or may not be a lengthy post.  On the off chance that it is {& by off chance, I mean it is}, go ahead and grab yourself a little something to sip on...and don't forget your snacks, too!  

Let's go ahead and talk a little bit about....

I don't know what it is, but I love teaching math concepts and skills.  This always makes my mom laugh something fierce because I 30 something...have to CALL HER when there's a sale so that she can tell me how much I'll be saving.  If it's 10%, I got it.  50% off is even better.  I mean, I can definitely tell you what half off is.  Anything MORE than that and I know I'm getting a good deal.  But if I want a specific dollar amount, I have to call her every.single.time.  I'm sure there's an app for that, but calling my mom has become a habit.

Anyway...I digress...

One of the most important skills we can teach our kids is how to solve problems.  While I definitely believe this is a skill that has to be modeled, I also feel like our kids can teach us a whole lot about problem solving, too.  We need to be the wind in their sails and guide them, but y'all, they can definitely show you some different ways to think when it comes to solving a problem.  

One of the most beneficial math trainings I ever received was on CGI (cognitively guided instruction).  You can read more about it HERE. I dug my heels in at first...the thought of being out of my classroom for 2 days at the time just seemed a bit much.  Would I really learn anything?!?!?!  (I know y'all feel the same way before attending a PD workshop!!)  But WOW.  Learn I did.  And A LOT.  I immediately came back into the classroom and implemented the strategies I learned.  And teaching using CGI taught me so much about what kind of a learner I am, too.

All that to be said, I strongly believe that incorporating word problems into your daily routine is SO important.  Yes, even in Kindergarten.  It can, and should, be done.  I received my CGI training my 2nd year teaching {I was in Kindergarten} and I've been using the same strategies and methods ever since.  And I LOVE watching my kids become such math minded thinkers using these strategies in the classroom!

Here are some simple and easy ideas for incorporating word problems & problem solving into your daily routine!

One way I like to incorporate problem solving in the classroom is with my little Mailbox Math.

I blogged about my Mailbox Math idea back in 2012 and you can read more about it HERE.  Not only is it a great way to incorporate literacy and math skills, but I used it as a way to get my kids TALKING about HOW they solved the problem. After giving the kids a few minutes to independently solve the problem {using manipulatives}, I'd call on several of my friends and ask them to  EXPLAIN their thinking.  What is the problem asking us?  What clues tell you that?  What did you do first?  Why?  Then what did you do?  Why?  Why did you use that strategy?  What did you come up with?  Etc., etc., etc.
This was SO powerful...getting kids to talk it out really gives you a perfect little glimpse into their thinking and it helps the other kids to see that the same answer can be achieved using different strategies.  POWERFUL!!!!  

Another whole group problem solving activity I loved to incorporate was my muffin tin math word problems.

For this activity, I took a mini muffin tin and labeled each section with a number {using an expo marker}.  You can use any numbers as long as the answers to your word problems are included.  I printed out addition and subtraction word problems on two different colored papers and then hung them on a ring.  I liked using two different colors to differentiate between addition and subtraction problems so that if I wanted to focus on either/or, I could find the problems quickly!!  

I divided my class into two teams and gave each team a number line and a set of little pom poms.  Each team was assigned one specific color pom pom {ex:  red for Team A, yellow for Team B}  Then I'd take my word problem ring and call out a prompt.  The first team to correctly solve the problem got to place their pom pom on the matching sum/difference in the muffin tin.  The first team to get 4 pom poms in a row {horizontal/diagonal/vertical} wins!

I also used this activity as an independent work station.  This worked best when there was at least 1 person at that station who was a strong reader.  If they were playing alone, they would read the word problem, solve, place the pom pom on the matching sum/differnce, and continue until they filled 5 spaces in the tin {they didn't have to be in a row}.  At that same independent muffin tin math station, I'd keep a number line and a problem solving pointer {craft stick with a googly eye adhered to the tip}.  I love using these particular pointers for the number line because they're easy to move and fun to look at!  HA!  Again, using two different colors to differentiate between addition and subtraction problems helped me to differentiate independent learning.  If I had friends struggling with addition, I'd say, "when you visit the muffin tin math tub, only use the pink cards" and vice versa.  

Another way I incorporate independent word problem practice is with my Print & Practice Problem Solving activities.

I like to laminate them and cut out the counters on the bottom of each sheet, place them in baggies, and then into a math tub.  The kids can pick out their problem solving baggie, use the counters to help them solve the problem, and then use an expo/vis-a-vis to write a matching number sentence.  This works great for the draw and solve problems, too.  

I also love that these print and practice activites can be copied and bound into a working math notebook, copied for homework/morning work, or used for small group intervention.  Any time I can get my kids to physically solve problems using their hands/objects/etc. I'll do it!  They're perfect for a quick "no prep print & go" type activity, too!

If you're interested, you can grab a few FREE SAMPLE PAGES from the packet HERE.  Just click on the "PREVIEW" button on the page.

Another way I incorporate independent problem solving into my day is with my Spin a Word Problem Spinners...

I found these spinners at the Dollar Tree a few years ago, but you could use ANY spinner...or even dice!  You could use any number amounts, too.  

For this activity, I have my kids take out their math journals and then spin two spinners.  They have to use the two numbers on which they land in a word problem.  They can create an addition or a subtraction problem.  I model for them how to circle/highlight/underline the clues in the problem and then answer their problem in a complete sentence.  They also have to include an illustration to show their work as well as a matching number sentence.  

I love how open-ended this activity is and it lends itself to engaging those higher order thinking skills as well.  My oldest, Landon, THRIVES on these types of activities.  I mean, he LOVES creating word problems.  The power of choice is so important for these little babies!!!!  They need that autonomy to take ownership of what they're learning!!!

Here's another take on the same activity using only ONE spinner...

Kids will spin only 1 spinner and then use the number on which they land as either the answer to a problem {sum/difference} or as a number that is part of the problem (addend).  They can choose to create an addition or subtraction problem, but they have to highlight/circle/underline the clues, answer in a complete sentence, and include an illustration and number sentence to support their thinking.  

I really do love teaching math to my little primary friends.  I love watching their thinking evolve and blossom.  For lack of more articulate phrasing, it's SO COOL to watch them grow into such math minded little thinkers.  There are so many simple ways to incorporate problem solving on a daily basis and I hope these activities help you in your classroom!  

Now tell me, how do you incorporate problem solving into your routine?!


  1. My students this year are all about "hands-on" learning. I'm off to go check out my muffin tins...thanks for all the tips & freebie pages! Jen :)

  2. I love the spinner idea! I've given them problems like "The answer is 9, what is the question," but I love the idea of having them write their own problem.


  3. I am so glad to hear you blogging about CGI! I wondered if it was just our district, or if it really was nation-wide like the program suggests, because I really haven't seen very many "big name" bloggers talking about it:) just received my training on it 2 years ago...and it was definitely mind-blowing that my little primary could handle big story problems! Just for fun, I challenged them with a few (simple) multiplication problems, and they DID THEM! I love that kiddos in that concrete stage will literally act or draw out what the problem is asking them, rather than look for key words and try to come up with an algorithm right away. Story problems are so relevant, and also help build reading skills, so we incorporate them daily into our math routine. Often times, I have the students make them up, which they love!

  4. I LOVE the Mailbox Math! I can't wait to try to incorporate that into my classroom, I think my students would have so much fun with it. Thanks for the great ideas!

  5. Early in the kindergarten year before my babes are reading at a high enough level to actually read word problems, I use technology as my best friend. I downloaded a voice recording app on our iPads and iPods and recorded myself reading word problems. Then, they can go out and independently work on solving word problems without someone there to actually "read" the problem to them. It also allows them to listen to the problem as many times as they need to to solve it. They also get a big kick out of hearing my voice come out of the iPads!

  6. I have been a CGI teacher for over 7 years now. Our district and state was one of the first to implement CGI and our district currently works with top researchers from this philosophy! I am on a math leadership team in our district, helping guide our district to a deeper CGI understanding. Check out my MANY blogs on this topic!

    Glad to see others are posting on CGI!
    Whitney, The First Grade Roundup

  7. LOVE this post!!!! I teach 2nd and my mind is now spinning with ideas!! Thank you so much :-)

  8. I am SO excited you are making problem solving products for CGI!! We do CGI Math Journals and I'm always looking for ways to add to those! I see it says "November", so might this become a monthly series that you would bundle?? :)

  9. Mailbox Math and Spinner Math are great! Will try Spinner next week. I also saw a clever idea on the Thanksgiving theme for creating student story problems. It is Harvest Time Math Story Mat at under the TEACH heading. I like mixing ELA and math together whenever possible.

  10. These math activities are great!! I love the Spinner Math and the muffin tin pan for my babies!! These are such creative ideas!! These are such engaging activities for the children in my classroom to do! I can't wait to try them in my classroom. I am excited to watch my children use their problem solving thinking skills!

  11. I think that through teaching children different ways to problem solve this definitely helps them solve them easier. The best approach what you have here is hands on learning. Thanks for all the great tips and advice!!

  12. Do you use just activity per day?