Choosing an Operation

Each and every year I have students who struggle with identifying what operation they should use to solve a problem. A couple of years ago an amazing team mate shared a strategy with me and it has worked miracles with my students. 

Students create a four square then write separating and combining across the top two columns, then just once and neatly with groups in the two rows. 

This strategy is really very simple. After reading the story problem the students should ask themselves, "Am I combining or separating?" Then, "Am I doing it just once or neatly with groups?" 

Then, students find where their two categories meet and that gives them the operation they should use. For example, given the problem 
Angela has 12 oranges and 16 apples. How many pieces of fruit does Angela have?
Separating or combining? Combining the two types of fruit.
Just once or neatly with groups? Just once
Combining just once means that we add! 

My struggling students have really done well with this strategy because it gives them something more concrete to refer to. 

We especially use this strategy when we solve our daily multi-step problems. I use these problems every day with small group as well as to practice our problem solving as a class. 

As a treat, the first person to comment with their email on this post will get the February edition of my Daily Multi-Step Problems for free!


  1. Wow! I love the poster to remember which operation to use. I'd love to receive the multi-step problems activity. I'm always looking for ways to help my kids become better at word problems with multiple steps. Thanks.


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