Analyzing and Designing Story Problems That Matter

  • Analyzing and Designing Story Problems That Matter

    By Cathery Yeh, Maureen Neumann, and Corey Drake, posted May 22, 2017 —


    In our previous three blog posts, we wrote about how the context and the chosen numbers in the story problems that we create for our students can influence students’ experiences with mathematics. Story problems influence students’ sense of belonging in classrooms by whether they can see themselves in the story, understand the context, or agree that the numbers in the action of the problem make sense. Also, story problems project powerful messages to our students about what is valued and whose knowledge and experiences are deemed important.


    Furthermore, rich and authentic tasks can motivate student learning, help build deep mathematical understanding, and connect school mathematics to students’ daily experiences. The context, culture, number choices, problem structure, and language used to create a mathematical task can activate problem-solving strategies that enable students to productively engage with learning mathematics (Carpenter et al. 2015; Land et al. 2014; NCTM 2014; Schwartz 2013; Van De Walle et al. 2016).


    Story problems serve as important vehicles to connect school mathematics to the daily experiences of the children we serve. However, as emphasized in the previous three blog posts, word problems can also exclude students from mathematics when the contexts, language, or number choices are not those that students can relate to or access. To conclude this series of blog posts, we suggest the following for teachers to consider as they work with students and mathematics problems:


    1.   Get to know your students, not only as mathematics learners, but also as children with interests and experiences both in and out of school.

    2.   Read textbook problems critically to notice the ways in which they might reinforce stereotypes or biases through the “hidden messages” they convey.

    3.   Be willing to adapt the contexts, numbers, and language of problems to better reflect the lives and experiences of your students and support their engagement with the mathematical goal of the lesson.


    Mathematics carries particular power in our society; historically and culturally, mathematics instructional practices have allowed just a very few to do well or to even like the subject. As teachers and teacher educators, we have found the three steps listed above to be helpful in ensuring that school mathematics is accessible and relatable for our students.


    We hope this blog can continue to provide a forum for discussion and the sharing of resources on this topic. Below is a list of related TCM resources.



    Drake, Corey, Tonia J. Land, Tonya Gau Bartell, Julia M. Aguirre, Mary Q. Foote, Amy Roth McDuffie, and Erin E. Turner. 2015. “Three Strategies for Opening Curriculum Spaces.” Teaching Children Mathematics 21, no. 6 (February): 346–53.

    Dominguez, Higinio. 2016. “Mirrors and Windows into Student Noticing.” Teaching Children Mathematics 22, no. 6 (February): 358–65. doi:10.5951/teacchilmath.22.6.0358

    Muir, Tracey. 2016. “Out of the Classroom, into the Home.” Teaching Children Mathematics 22, no. 8 (April): 496-504.

    Neumann, Maureen D. 2007. “Preservice Teachers Examine Gender Equity in Teaching Mathematics.” Teaching Children Mathematics 13, no. 7 (March): 388–95.

    Yeh, Cathery. 2015. “Worth a Thousand Words.” Teaching Children Mathematics 21, no. 8 (April): 512.


    Your turn

    Are there additional considerations that teachers should keep in mind when creating or selecting word problems? Do you have other resources on the topic that you could share with our community? We want to hear from you. Post your ideas in the comments below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.



    Carpenter, Thomas P., Elizabeth Fennema, Megan Loef Franke, Linda Levi, and Susan B. Empson. 2015. Children’s Mathematics: Cognitively Guided Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

    Land, Tonia J., Corey Drake, Molly B. Sweeney,  Jennifer M. Johnson, Natalie Franke. 2014. Transforming the Task with Number Choice. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

    National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). 2014. Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA: NCTM.

    Schwartz, Sydney, and Frances Curcio. 2013. Implementing the Common Core State Standards through Mathematical Problem Solving: Kindergarten–Grade 2. Reston, VA: NCTM.

    Van De Walle, John A., Karen A. Karp,  and Jennifer M. Bay-Williams.2016. Elementary Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally. Boston: Pearson Education.



    Cathery Yeh is an assistant professor in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University in California. She is the lead author of the newly released NCTM book Reimagining the Mathematics Classroom: Creating and Sustaining Productive Learning Environments. Her work focuses on creating classroom spaces for generative learning, agency, community, and collective praxis. Corey Drake is an associate professor of teacher education and Director of Teacher Preparation at Michigan State University. She teaches elementary school mathematics methods courses, and her research interests include teachers learning from and about curriculum materials as well as the roles of policy, curriculum, and teacher preparation in supporting teachers’ capacity to teach diverse groups of students. Maureen D. Neumann[email protected], teaches mathematics education courses for preservice and in-service teachers at the University of Vermont–Burlington. She is interested in helping teachers understand issues of equity when teaching mathematics.