We spend a lot of time during small group math dissecting story problems. I have found that my students do really well with solving the arithmetic, but get really bogged down in understanding what is being asked of them.
To remedy this, we have been looking at mutli-step story problems every day and really breaking them down. Our general game plan is to look at 2-3 multi-step story problems together and then each student will break one down and solve on their own.
Before students are allowed to solve they must be able to tell me their plan. This includes pulling out all the information they will need to solve, any key words that might help them to figure out what operation to use, and give an educated guess as to what the answer might be.
I am really stressing starting with an estimate or educated guess to try and build some number sense with my students. What I am really looking for is your answer going to be more or less than what you are starting with.
I have been using these Daily Multi-Step Story Problems to perform this task in small group. We have also used these same cards as a scavenger hunt around the room. I hang the cards around the room and then students have to travel around and solve the cards they find. This is a great activity for differentiation because I can give each student a different number of problems that they must find and solve. This works well for my students because I will "secretly" write the number that each student must solve, that way no one knows the expectation for anyone else.
I am beginning to see some progress in my students and the way they problem solve, but I know that this is something that we will continue to work on all year.