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Posted by Mollie Shaw on

How can I help my student think clearly about word problems in math?

The confusion often lies in the fact that academic language can sometimes use words which are commonly used in everyday language, but in math, they mean something quite precise or even different.  For example, the word 'difference' is a word students know to mean 'not the same as'.  However, in mathematics, the word 'difference' is the solution to a subtraction problem.

The steps that I mentioned in my last blog post about word problems are these:

1. Read!  Have the student read aloud the word problem, in its entirety, more than one time.

2. What units?  What kind of units will the answer be stated in?

3. What operation? What operation is needed to solve the problem?  Are there more than one operation needed?

4. Solve.

I want to add one more step at the beginning:  Define the words in the question.  Last week I worked with a young girl who is learning English while learning math.  The word problem asked her to calculate the cost of two cans of peaches and one can of peas.  I asked her what the word 'can' meant.  She shrugged.  I found a can of black beans in the refrigerator and showed her what a can was.  Now, she probably knew what the word 'can' meant, but she was only partially certain because she also knew other meanings for the word.

On another occasion, a second grader did not know what the term 'underline' meant.  This was a reading student but it shows that there are times that students have faked understanding for years on certain words used in academic tasks and they need someone to help them fill in their gaps without reacting.

Research is proving the importance of the emotions in learning.  Learn to laugh a lot when teaching students, and make your own mistakes in front of them.  Set a tone that mistakes are no big deal so that students will trust you and risk learning with you at the helm.

So, have students define the easy words that they know as well as words that they may not know in the second step of word problems.  See what happens!  And, let me know!  I would love to hear from you.