EL Support Lesson

Reflect on the Context First!

Emphasize student understanding and reasoning! This lesson plan helps learners solve story problems using sense-making strategies. This can be used alongside the lesson Solving Word Problems or as a stand-alone lesson.
This lesson can be used as a pre-lesson for the Solving Word Problems lesson plan.
Grade Subject View aligned standards
This lesson can be used as a pre-lesson for the Solving Word Problems lesson plan.

Students will be able to use addition and subtraction to solve word problems.


Students will be able to solve word problems using class discussions and manipulatives to support understanding.

(2 minutes)
  • Gather students together in a circle and say, "Stand up if you've ever had a problem. Oh wow, many of you have had a problem before. I've had so many problems! Who can tell me an example of a problem they had and how they solved it?" Allow a student to share their example with the class.
  • Explain to the students that problems are things that need to be solved. We might have a problem tying our shoes in the morning, or finding our tooth brush. We also might have a problem sharing our toys with our friends. No matter what our problem is, we have to come up with a strategy, or plan of action, to solve our problem.
(10 minutes)
  • Ask students to go back to their seats, and write the following story problem on the board:
    • I had 7 dollars. My mom gave me 3 dollars for my birthday. I felt excited to get money! How much money do I have now?
  • Model thinking aloud by saying, "Hmm, I want to know if I have enough money to buy the new coat I really love! The coat costs 12 dollars. Solving this problem is important to me so I can decide how to spend my birthday money!"
  • Provide students with a word bank on the board with the following words: combine, take away
  • Remind students that the word combine means to put together, and take away means to take something away from another amount.
  • Have students do a brief think-pair-share, sharing out the definition of addition and subtraction. Write the following sentence frames on the board and encourage students to refer to the word bank to share their answers aloud:
    • Addition means I ____ two or more values.
    • Subtraction means I ____ from another amount.
  • Explain the concepts of addition and subtraction by saying, "I know I need to use addition if I'm combining two or more amounts. I know I need to use subtraction if I'm taking an amount away from another amount."
  • Project the Reflecting on Story Problems worksheet on the whiteboard. Read the questions aloud and ask students to share their ideas, referencing the story problem as needed. Write answers to questions in complete sentences on the worksheet. After reflecting on what the story problem is trying to answer, ask students to stand up if they think you should add. Ask students to put their hands on their heads if they think you should subtract. Ask a student to share why they think the operation they chose was the right thing to do. Offer the following sentence frames for students to refer to for support:
    • I think you should add because ____.
    • I think you should subtract because ____.
  • Read the story problam aloud once more. Say, "I started with 7 dollars. My mom gave me 3 dollars. I know that feeling excited isn't something necessary to solving the problem. But the last sentence, 'How much money do I have now?' helps me to figure out that the question is asking me how much money I have total, after my mom gave me 3 dollars. I'm going to add because I need to combine 7 with 3."
  • Model solving the addition problem using a strategy of your choice. For example, draw a number line on the whiteboard. Say, "The strategy I'm going to use is a number line." Next, write the number 7 to the far left. Decide how many hops you need to draw to add 3 with 7. State that you need to draw 3 hops. Encourage students to help you figure out the answer.
  • Write the standard algorithm of 7 + 3 = 10 on the whiteboard. Ask students if you have enough money to buy the 12 dollar coat. Briefly discuss other birthday gifts that may cost 10 dollars or less.
(8 minutes)
  • Write the following story problem on the board:
    • I had 4 cats. My aunt gave us 8 more cats. I love cats so much! How many cats live at my house now?
  • Read the story problem aloud. Next, have students form small groups. Pass out a copy of the Reflecting on Story Problems worksheet to each group.
  • Give students time to complete their worksheets. Rotate around the classroom and support students as needed.
  • Allow students time to share their ideas aloud, referring to the Reflecting on Story Problems worksheet for support.
  • Provide resources for students to use, such as number lines, hundreds boards, place value charts, manipulatives, whiteboards and whiteboard markers, coloring materials, etc.
  • Write the following sentence stem on the board:
    • We can use ____ to solve the problem.
  • Model completing the sentence stem using the words number line. Explain that you used a number line to solve the first problem in the lesson. Allow students to offer ideas about ways to solve the problem.
(10 minutes)
  • Give students time to decide on a strategy and solve the story problem in their group. Although each group might choose one strategy, it's okay if students within the group try a different strategy. The purpose of solving problems is for each student to develop sense-making strategies that make sense to them!
  • Rotate around the classroom and take pictures of students as they solve the problem. Write down important parts of dialogue that illustrate student's thinking. Record the names of students who seem to have a solid understanding of the strategy that was used and students who need more support. Observing students as they solve problems informs us as to what numbers to use (how small or large) and what questions we can ask that will focus the child's attention on more efficient strategies.
  • Complete a whole class share-out where each group shares the strategy they used with the class.
  • Ask probing questions to dig deep into student thinking, for example:
    • How was this group's strategy the same or different from the strategy you used?
    • How did filling out the Reflecting on Story Problems worksheet help you solve the problem?
    • Who can restate ____’s reasoning in a different way?
    • Does anyone want to add on to this group's strategy?
    • Do you agree or disagree with the way this group solved the problem? Why? Why not?
    • This group solved the problem using ____ (addition/subtraction). Do you agree or disagree with their choice? Why? Why not?


  • Encourage students to draw a visual representation of addition and subtraction in their math journals during explicit teaching.
  • Have students work in a small teacher-led group during the guided teaching and group work sections of the lesson.
  • Provide students with opportunities to share their understanding in their home language (L1) if student is literate in L1.
  • Provide student with a chart with the following words in L1 and English: problem, combine, addition, subtraction.


  • Ask students to explain addition and subtraction in their own words to a partner, instead of using the sentence frame during explicit teaching.
  • Challenge students to try solving the story problem using at least two different strategies during group work.
  • Have students write down how they solved the problem using sequencing words (first, then, next, finally).
  • Circulate and listen to student talk during group work, jotting down notes about common or important words and phrases, together with helpful sketches or diagrams. Scribe students’ words and sketches on the posterboard to refer back to during the closing. Write down vocabulary words, strategies, and concepts that need to be reintroduced.
  • Take pictures of students as they solve the problems to document learning and explore sense-making strategies in the future.
(10 minutes)
  • Tape the poster you created using students' words, phrases, sketches, and diagrams on the whiteboard.
  • Point to various groups' strategies, and ask them to reflect on the following questions:
    • Why did you draw this picture? How did it help you solve the problem?
    • Which words and visuals help you communicate your ideas to your peers?
    • Is there a strategy you see that you would like to try next time?
    • Did anyone solve the problem the same way?
    • How did reflecting on the problem's meaning before solving the problem help you?
  • Use student responses to inform planning for future lessons on thinking about the answer of a story problem before solving it and teaching sense-making strategies!

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