The Secret to Solving Word Problems. Hint: It’s Not about Math
November 12, 2017
Solving word problems is far more about effective reading skills and far less about math.
You might be asking, then, why do so many strong readers fear solving word problems? Because, math word problems have a perception problem.
Why Students Fear Solving Word Problems
- Solving word problems doesn’t feel like it “follows a rule” the way it does when you solve an equation. That can feel overwhelming to students who lack confidence in math. They just don’t know how to get started. The good news for your readers is that there are rules they can follow (keep reading). Better still, the thinking they need to do is quite similar to the close reading that is required of them in English class. The key is to help them see it that way.
- In addition, a student’s math fear can be very physical and not just in the “stomach ache” sort of way. When we are nervous, our short-term memory can freeze up. Realistically, solving word problems usually requires students to juggle more information in short-term memory than solving an equation: reading multiple lines of text, identifying what is being asked, picking numbers to use, and setting up an equation. All before they even begin to “do math”. In short, that brain freeze might make them forget what they read, transcribe the wrong number, or write the wrong operation. They start to believe that they can’t do math, when what they really need is help with short-term memory.
First, Fix the Perception Problem
- Share this secret with your students: Learn one set of rules for solving word problems in elementary school. And then you can use that same set of rules in every math class going forward. All you need are good reading skills to get you started.
- It’s so important for your students to understand the difference between having difficulty with math and being nervous. Once they understand why “brain freeze” happens and that it has nothing to do with their math ability, they are less likely to view themselves as “bad at math”. And then give them the one strategy that will always help: WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING YOU CAN. Simple as that. The more you put on the paper, the less you need to keep in short-term memory, and the less likely you are to forget a step or make a mistake.
Reliable Rules for Solving Math Word Problems
Now that you and your students have a clear sense of why they might struggle with solving word problems, here’s a reliable set of rules they can follow to solve any problem.
- Mark up the question. Circle the numbers you will use. Lightly cross out information you don’t need. Underline exactly what you are asked to find. (e.g. If the question asks which student is tallest, your answer should be a name, not a number.) Use the same annotating skills you use in English class.
- Draw a picture. You don’t need to be an artist. For many students, there’s truth to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Pictures help most students visualize the problem. It clarifies what they are given and what they need to find. This strategy is particularly good for students with strong visual memory.
- Use colored pencils. Good mathematicians use color to help them distinguish numbers and objects more easily.
- Use graph paper, a ruler or protractor. If it helps you to have an accurate picture, use the most common math tools. Your teacher might not have them available to you, but if you have them, most teachers will allow you to use them. Numbers 3 and 4 are particularly important for students who need help with spatial perception.
- Estimate before solving. Before you dive in and solve, know what you expect your answer to be. Then if your final answer isn’t close, you’ll need to go back and find your mistake. If it’s within the range, chances are you did most, if not all, of the problem correctly. This is particularly important for students with weaker abstract reasoning.
- Check your work. Have a plan for how you will check your work. Checking your work can be tedious, but some teachers estimate that as many as 50% of math mistakes are “careless errors“. That number might be high, but there’s no doubt that checking work will improve grades. This is critical for students with weaker attention.
Note: Above we use the terms short-term memory and working memory interchangeably. Working memory is a little more complex, as it assesses a student’s ability to not only remember information but also to apply it. The Mindprint Assessment measures working memory. Learn more about working memory.