Teaching Keywords? Forget About it!

I received an email from a principal in my district last Tuesday:

Please send me info on why teachers should be careful about teaching kids to pull out keywords from word problems as a key way to define what operation to use. 

I went to my Virtual Math Buddies (VMB) on the #MTBoS for some assistance and they didn’t disappoint.  The following post is our collective response to this principal.

We start here with a gem found by Kristin from the people over at MathSolutions:

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For video access click here—>Search by Student: Marisa—>click 295 

I would like to think that the video alone is a reason to not teach keywords but if it’s not, I’ve compiled everything that was shared with me on twitter…I hope.

I like having all of these in one place so that the next time I’m asked about keywords I will inundate the unsuspecting victim with the same kindness and research that was bestowed upon me.

Articles and research:

Straight from Van de Walle.

A Problem-Solving Alternative to Using Keywords –great article from Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. (VOL. 10, NO. 7 – March 2005)

Drake, J. M., & Barlow, A. T. (2007). Assessing Students’ Levels of Understanding Multiplication through Problem WritingTeaching Children Mathematics, 14(5), 272-277.

Nix the Tricks –Tina Cardone’s compilation of math tricks that need to go…and ways to fix the misunderstanding. (chapter 2, page 4)

From Children’s Mathematics (CGI) and Making Sense which are a go-to for many of us K-5 folk.  If these 2 books aren’t in your personal library…SLAP your forhead!  You should have visited Heinemann!

Key words aren’t the key to understanding math –Nicora Placa doing what she does (research-based blogging).  Sure it’s a blog but It’s just as good as research in my opinion.


  • Making Sense from Madame Zager. Tracey does a great job laying the foundation for why using keywords is an #epicfail in our classrooms.
  • When Tricks Should Not Be For Kids -Show a child some tricks and he will survive this week’s math lesson. Teach a child to think critically and his mind will thrive for a lifetime.

Taken from here.

As elementary teachers we need to set our students up for success in middle school and beyond.  Take this problem for example where students don’t read the problem and only lock onto the numbers and keyword:

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.13.19 PM

Well if we have only taught keywords in elementary school the answer is obviously 8.  Let’s take a look at the rest of it….

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.13.58 PM

I wish there was some sort of Keyword Poster Buyback Incentive Program for teachers but unfortunately there’s not.  So let’s go for conceptual understanding of mathematics and put the keyword posters where the belong…

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.33.46 PM


A special thanks to everyone who help round up the good stuff for this post!  

You know who you are!

About gfletchy

K-8 math consumer trying to listen and learn each day. Stay thirsty my friends!
This entry was posted in Cheese Mover, Intellectual Need, Making Math Accessible, Modeling, Planning, SMPs, Strategy Development, Teacher Content, Who Knows?, Word Problems. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Teaching Keywords? Forget About it!

  1. Christy says:

    ❤️ This is PERFECT! Thanks for sharing! I can’t wait to get asked why I don’t have a poster in my room!

  2. Andrew says:

    Graham, I feel like everytime I have a question about something you either already have a post about it or are gathering info on twitter to answer it in the future! Keep it up!

  3. Once again, identifying key words is what happens when you take a holistic idea and apply analytic principles. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

  4. Thanks for sharing our blog post, “When Tricks Should Not Be For Kids.”

  5. Joe Schwartz says:

    Graham, Thanks for collecting this all in one place. The keyword strategy is really entrenched, and your post will be a very helpful resource for everyone looking for alternatives.

  6. Lynn says:

    Thanks for this post Graham…all the links are helpful as I plan for my first time presenting at NCTM Annual in 2018! Though the post is from a few years ago it’s still a habit we need to try to break in classrooms.

  7. Pingback: Avoid Keyword Strategy Pitfalls – Metro Chicago Mathematics Initiative

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