How Emily Overcame Her Struggle with Math Word Problems

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Word problems are a common challenge for learners of all ages, and it's pretty easy to understand why.

You’re performing multiple steps to solve a word problem: defining what the problem is, deciding which method should be used to solve the problem, finding the relevant information for the method, and then executing that method correctly.

Any misstep along this mental problem-solving path can easily lead to a wrong answer.

Math word problems have an additional, challenging step: You need to translate words into a corresponding number relationship. In math, this is called a “number sentence.”

For example, you have to translate the sentence “Sarah had 5 pennies but 3 fell out of her pocket. How many does she have left?” into the corresponding math equation “5 - 3 = ?”

If you don’t translate a math word problem correctly from the beginning, it’s pretty tough to arrive at the correct answer.

That’s one of the big problems 9-year-old Emily faced in her fourth-grade math class.

“Emily would get frustrated with math problems,” explains her mom, Angela, noting that she struggled “especially with word problems and trying to understand what function to use.”

Emily was fortunate to have a teacher who could help her with word problems in the classroom. But as Angela notes, “When schools closed, she really missed the in-person instruction from her teacher.”

Many parents struggle to help their kids with math homework, which typically includes word problems. Whether your kids are back in school or learning remotely, this is likely a challenge you will continue to encounter.

Luckily, we’ve broken down the reasons why math word problems are challenging, so you can understand — and avoid — the common pitfalls.

And you’ll see how Elephant Learning can help kids like Emily overcome these barriers to progress in their mathematical learning.


Your child’s literacy skills are important to solve math word problems. But don’t misinterpret their word problem struggles as a reflection on their literacy.

The process of translating words into number sentences is hard because we use so many different kinds of words to express the same functions.

For example, subtraction can be expressed with words like lost, removed, ate, shared, etc. These words are supposed to be clues to your child to use the subtraction function. 

But with so many words at our disposal for so many mathematical functions, these clues aren’t always obvious.

That’s why Emily was struggling. Even though she understood the words in the word problem, she couldn’t decipher the clues to identify the right math function.

The reason why Emily struggled with math word problems is because she needed a stronger conceptual understanding of math. She needed to hear and use language to describe math relationships, so she could identify similar language in different contexts.

Conceptual understanding is the only way kids will be able to apply their math skills to a variety of situations. Word problems are a way to gauge whether your child can apply math concepts, or is simply relying on rote memorization of math facts.

Emily was struggling with memorization too. 

When memorizing the multiplication table, Angela says Emily, “would do 4’s and 6s by themselves, but when it came to doing a variety of them she would forget what she had just learned.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it means your child might not understand what multiplication actually means.

Related: Math Concepts and Strategies Parents Need to Know for Grades 3-6

Students who merely memorize multiplication — and don’t grasp the concept — may later struggle to apply it to concepts like exponents, area, or volume. 

Here’s an easy way to assess whether your child understands the concept of multiplication.

Make seven groups with five things in each group. Ask your child how many items there are in total.

If they answer immediately, they understand the concept of multiplication.

If you notice that they need to count all the items, they likely haven’t learned the concept. You might be surprised if you then ask your child who counted, “What is 7 times 5?” and they answer correctly. You’ve discovered they have memorized without conceptual understanding.

These are common problems, which is why Elephant Learning was designed by math educators and researchers to specifically pinpoint these weaknesses. 

By focusing on concept mastery, Elephant Learning prepares your child to tackle a variety of math problems.

Finding Elephant Learning

“We were looking for a math program to help Emily progress to grade level,” explains Angela.

“She was not far behind but it was taking longer for her to learn certain concepts and she struggled with word problems.”

Angela tried to use workbooks, flashcards, and online multiplication memorization programs to help Emily, but “they just didn’t fully work for her.”

In fact, Angela noticed that Emily “was frustrated and didn’t feel like she was progressing, even if she was.” That was probably a red flag to Angela: just because Emily was getting correct answers didn’t mean she felt confident in her conceptual understanding.

That’s why Angela was attracted to Elephant Learning. “I liked that it focused on concepts versus rote memorization.”

Elephant Learning does not require students to memorize isolated facts, methods, or formulas. Instead, your child plays games that build their mathematics vocabulary in a variety of situations. They learn the language of math. 

These games build your child’s mathematics intuition by allowing them to play with and see math concepts in action on the screen.

The attractive interface was also a major draw for Angela. “I like the different characters that Emily can pick. She can choose basketballs one day and unicorns the next.”

Kids who learn this way understand mathematical ideas and then transfer their understanding to tackle new, more challenging games.

But Elephant Learning makes sure parents are still in the loop on their child’s progress. It provides detailed data to show where your child is struggling, which was an important feature for Angela.

“I liked the in-depth review of what Emily was doing, where she was struggling and the suggested activities to help her. I liked the breakdown of learning.”

Those insights help parents like Angela manage their time more effectively.

“I like that it is not a hassle to help Emily with math. I sit with her when she is starting a new concept and we talk about strategies. Then she is off and running. 

“If she is missing an area, I can see the questions and look at the tips to help her.” 

Elephant Learning details exactly how each topic is taught, with advice on how you can reinforce those concepts during your own playtime with your kids.

Related: Math App Pitfalls and the Elephant Learning Difference

Emily’s Experience With Elephant Learning

Angela can already tell that Elephant Learning is a powerful tool for herself and Emily. It’s keeping Emily engaged, challenged, and progressing. It’s keeping Angela informed and confident about her child’s abilities.

Angela likes that Emily only needs to spend 10 minutes a day on the app, “not so long that it starts to feel like work.”

She plays three times a week, on average.

The games are building Emily’s confidence. 

“She likes all the choices and the different sounds the games make. 

“She also likes being able to skip a game if she does not understand something. She is not getting frustrated with the change in problems either like she would at school. One game may focus on adding, the next might be multiplying or estimating. I find that since each question is not timed, she feels more confident.”

And for an extra boost to her self-esteem, Angela can show Emily her progress chart.

“She likes seeing her Elephant age pass her age.”

When Emily started playing on Elephant Learning, she was doing math at an almost 8-year-old’s level. That was her “Elephant age.”

After six months, Emily’s Elephant age is now 10 years old. She’s mastered over two years of math concepts.

And Angela has noticed this dramatic improvement in Emily too.

“I think Elephant Learning has really helped cement her multiplication facts without the focus on memorizing it. 

“Another area I really noticed an improvement is with fractions. They introduced it at the end of last year but she didn't really didn't get it. She gets it now. The slow introduction to the concept has been awesome.”

“We just started school and they will be doing assessment tests so I am excited to see the improvement.”

If you’re not sure where exactly your child is struggling in their math learning, Elephant Learning can help you discover — and address — those problem areas quickly.

Your child’s struggles with math aren’t uncommon, and Elephant Learning might be the game-changing tool you’ve been missing. 

Register up to seven kids on one account for only $35/month. Click here to get started!

Emily’s Results: 

  • Age: 9
  • Starting Elephant Learning Age: 7.7
  • Current Elephant Learning Age: 10.2
  • The difference after six months: 2.5

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