Help Students Solve Word Problems with “Pirate Math”
By Pamela M. Seethaler, Sarah R. Powell, and Lynn S. Fuchs
Mr. Thomas presents his class with this word problem: “Jim spent $8 on a movie ticket and
$5 on popcorn. How much more did Jim spend on the ticket?” Melanie adds 8 and 5 on her
fingers, raises her hand, and shouts, “13 dollars!”
Melanie’s answer is incorrect, but is it unusual?
Pirate Math is a tutoring program aimed at second
and third graders that gives students like Melanie
strategies to solve word problems. First, students
learn to identify word problems by type. Next,
students learn to represent the problem structure with
an algebraic equation and then to solve the equations.
Students also learn how to transfer problem-solving
skills to problems with irrelevant information and to
problems where relevant information is found in
graphs, charts, or figures, like word problems found
on high-stakes tests. In addition, Pirate Math
integrates a pirate theme into the program. Students
learn to “find X,” just like pirates do on a treasure
map, and they are reinforced and motivated by
Pirate Math is conducted with three sessions per week
for 16 weeks (48 sessions). Each session lasts 25–30
minutes and comprises five activities. A Pirate Math manual comes with scripts (which are
studied, not read) and materials to implement the activities.
Pirate Math Activities
1. Math Fact Flash Cards. The tutor shuffles a stack of addition and subtraction flash cards
and presents the flash cards one at a time, placing correctly answered cards in a stack
on the table. If a student answers incorrectly, the student “counts up” to find the correct
answer before the card is placed in the stack. “Counts up” is an addition and subtraction
strategy. For addition, students are taught to put the big number in the problem in their
head and to count up using their fingers. For subtraction, students start with the
“minus” number and count up on their fingers to the top number, which gives them the
difference. After one minute, the tutor counts the number of correctly answered flash
cards. Then, the student has another minute to try to beat the first score. The higher
score for the day is graphed. The graphs, which are a visual representation of progress,
are inspirational for the students, and teachers give their students their graphs at the
end of the program.
2. Word-Problem Warm-Up. Here the student explains how he or she solved a word
problem from the previous lesson. The Daily Lesson follows, which focuses on word-
problem strategies. During the first few daily lessons, students learn to count up
addition and subtraction problems and check their word-problem work. In subsequent
lessons, the tutor introduces three word problem types: Total, Difference, and Change.
For each problem type, which is taught separately, the student learns how to set up
algebraic equations to represent the problem type and how to solve the algebraic
equations by finding “X.” The teacher also incorporates into the daily lessons explicit
instruction on how to ignore irrelevant information; gather relevant information from
scenes, bar charts, and graphs; and solve problems involving money or double-digit
3. Word-Problem Sorting Cards. These flash cards each show a Total, Difference, or
Change word problem. The tutor reads the problems. For two minutes, the student
identifies word problems by type and places the card onto a Sorting Mat. The tutor
reviews incorrectly sorted cards at the end of the activity.
5. The Lesson. The student learns the strategies for solving word problems. For example, a
lesson may focus on how to indentify extraneous information in story problems.
Teachers are provided with a manual for these lessons.
6. Final Review. Here, the student has four minutes to solve nine algebraic equations and
one word problem. The tutor grades the work and provides immediate corrective
In the spirit of Pirate Math, throughout each
session, the tutor awards token “treasure
coins” to students to reinforce on-task behaviors such as listening, following directions, and
completing activities accurately. At the end of each session, the tutor counts the coins, and
the student colors in the same number of “footsteps” on a “treasure map.” Once all the
footsteps leading to the “X” on the treasure map are colored in, the student earns a small
prize from a treasure chest.
So, back to Melanie, who missed Mr. Thomas’s word problem: “Jim spent $8 on a movie
ticket and $5 on popcorn. How much more did Jim spend on the ticket?” As a Pirate Math
student, Melanie would solve the word problem like this:
“Okay, this is a Difference problem because it compares two amounts. The $8 movie ticket
is the Bigger number. The $5 popcorn is the smaller number. I have to find the Difference. I
know that B – s = D. So, $8 - $5 = $X. To find X, I have to subtract. 8 - 5 = 3. So, X = $3
and the Difference is $3. The movie ticket costs $3 more than the popcorn!”
Melanie’s explanation may seem advanced for a young student, but students in second and
third grade who experience serious math difficulty can learn these strategies. Over the last
three years, evaluations of Pirate Math in Nashville and Houston, where students with math
difficulty were randomly assigned to Pirate Math or to other tutoring or control conditions,
produced the same results: Pirate Math resulted in significantly better improvement on word
problems and algebra skills, as well as on fluency with math facts.
For more information on Pirate Math, contact email@example.com or