Sunday, January 15, 2017

Solving Story Problems with the Highlight Tool Add-on for Docs

If Bob leaves at Noon on a west-bound train traveling 60 miles per hour, and Mary leaves at 1pm on an east-bound train traveling 70 miles per hour, how many minutes will it take before you suffer a math induced panic attack?

If solving story problems brings back grade school anxiety, you are certainly not alone. Many students struggle with word problems. Such problems are more challenging because they require skills higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, including evaluating, analyzing, and creating. We may feel comfortable (relatively speaking) with math when simply given an expression to evaluate, but it can be quite a bit more difficult to decide what is important, determine relationships, see what is missing, and construct a plan to solve a problem.

A while back I did a blog post on "Highlight Tool", an add-on for Google Docs that allows you to assign meaning to colors with which you can highlight text in your document. In that example I primarily applied the tool to language arts situations. See here for that blog post.

In this blog post we will look at the same tool, but this time see how colored highlighting can help student solve mathematical story problems. See below for details.

The Problem

First things first, we need a problem to solve. For my example in this post we will go with something somewhat basic, since I want to emphasize how this tool can be used while not confusing anyone unnecessarily with the math. Here is the word problem we will work to solve:
Mason has 12 Pokemon cards, while his brother Carter has 7 cards and his other brother Grant has 9 cards. If Mason decided to share his cards between himself and his two brothers, how many total cards would Grant end up with?
So let’s see how the Highlighting Tool add-on could help with this.

Highlight Tool Installation

The tool we are going to use is simply called "Highlight Tool" and is a Google Docs add-on. Before we explore how this tool could be helpful, let’s cover how it can be installed.
  • Open a Google Doc.
  • Click the "Add-on" menu item in the top menu bar.
  • Click "Get Add-ons" from the drop-down menu.
  • This will open the Add-ons window.
  • You can scroll through the available Add-ons, or narrow down the choices with the filter menu, or type in a search term.
  • The add-on you want is called "Highlight Tool". If you are unable to find it, you can use this direct link: Highlight Tool Add-on link
  • Once you have found "Highlight Tool" click the blue +FREE button.
  • You will then get a pop-up window explaining what privileges the Add-on needs, and asking for your permission to install it.
  • Click the blue "Allow" button to allow the Add-on to install.

That’s it! The "Highlight Tool" add-on will now be installed and available in your "Add-ons" menu.

Highlight Tool Basic Usage

Here is how the tool is used.
  • To launch the tool click "Add-ons" in the top menu bar of Google Docs.
  • Choose "Highlight Tool" from the drop-down menu.
  • Click "Start".
  • A panel will open on the right side of the screen.
In the panel you can create your own custom highlighters, choosing the color and the meaning of the highlighter. To create a highlighter, do the following:
  • In the "Highlight Tool" panel, click "Create highlighters".
  • This will open a pop-up window.
  • Click on the color button to choose the color you want for the highlighter.
  • Click in the box to the right of the color to type in a description for what the color will mean.
  • Click the plus "+" button to create another highlighter.
  • Click the minus "-" button to delete a highlighter.
  • Click "Create" when done.

You will now have a list of highlighters in the panel. You can add more, edit existing, or delete existing as needed.

To use the highlights, do the following:
  • Have the "Highlight Tool" add-on open.
  • Select any text in your document that you wish to highlight.
  • Click the color you want to use in the "Highlight Tool" panel.
  • That color highlight will now be applied to your text.
  • You can remove a highlight by selecting text and clicking the "Un-highlight" button.

Exporting and Importing Highlights

You can save your students a lot of time, and make sure everyone is consistent in the use of the same colors and same meanings. You can do this by exporting the highlighters you created, and then having your students import them.

To export your highlighters:
  • Create the needed highlighters as normal.
  • Click "Add-ons" then "Highlight Tool" then "Share Highlighters".
  • The tool will now create a "Highlighter Key Template" Google Doc that has all of the information related to the highlighters you have made.
  • A pop-up window will appear with a link to that document.
  • Click the link to open the document.
  • You now need to share this document with your students so they can import the highlighters you have created. 
  • You can share the document through Google Classroom, email, on your website, or any other way you prefer.
  • Note: The students will need edit rights to the document, so you can have them make a copy of the document or you can use the "Make a copy for each student" option in Google Classroom.

To import the highlighters:
  • To import your highlighters the students simply need to open the shared "Highlighter Key Template" document you created.
  • Then they click "Add-ons" then "Highlight Tool" then "Import Highlighters".
  • The highlighters you created will now be imported for them.
  • In the future the students can access this set by clicking "Highlighter library" in the add-on panel and selecting the set of highlighters.

Solving Story Problems with Highlighter Tool

So back to where we began. How can this tool help students solve story problems? Well, a big part of solving a word problem is to read through the text and identify the values given, the operations, what question is being asked, and if there is any unneeded information. One way to do this is by highlighting the text in the story problem to identify these different parts.

I have created a highlighter set as follows:
  • Light blue = Given values - These are the numbers and quantities we will be working with in the problem.
  • Light red = Operations - These are the words that indicate mathematical operations, such as more than for addition or shared between for division.
  • Light green = Question to answer - This is the part of the problem that indicates what we are trying to find, calculate, or determine.
  • Light gray = Unrelated info - These are the “red herrings” in the problem that provide us with unrelated information that we can ignore.
If you would like to use this set of highlighters, you can get your own copy to import with the link below:

Once you get your copy of the template:
  • Click "Add-ons" then "Highlight Tool" then "Import Highlighters".
  • The highlighters I created will now be imported for you.
  • In the future you can access this set by clicking "Highlighter library" in the add-on panel and selecting the "Math Story Problems" set of highlighters.
Using the colored highlighters students can now read through the story problem and highlight the text with the appropriate colors. For our example we might end up with something like this:


Using these highlighting colors can be helpful in several ways:
  • It helps the student process through the story problem, break it down into its parts, and identify the key information.
  • It helps the student eliminate extra unnecessary information that is not really part of the problem.
  • It can allow groups of students, or the entire class, to compare how they colored the problem and come to an agreement on how to solve the problem.
  • It can help you as the teacher to identify where a student may have misconceptions in solving the problem.


Many times we may think of highlighting as just a tool for language arts. However, reading is a skill that applies across all curriculum areas. Highlighting can be just as useful for story problems as it is for story books.

If you try this out, please let me know how it goes by sharing your experiences and ideas in the comments below.

By the way, did you get "13 cards" for the answer to the story problem? Good job!

Post by Eric Curts. Connect with Eric on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. Many people have problems with solving story problem because they need to use their brain, but they don't want to.

  2. You should view here lots of articles on related thematic.