If you ask math teachers about their biggest challenge, the answer is almost unanimous – word problems! Some have even called them the bane of their existence. Story problems help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but many students still struggle to crack their code.
The Survey Data
In a recent survey, 164 out of 168 elementary teachers agreed that reading and comprehension are the main hurdles to students solving word problems.* Students face common barriers, such as difficulty reading and understanding the problem, uncertainty about which operation to use, and unfamiliar vocabulary or context.
So much time is spent decoding words and comprehending the problem, their working memory struggles with the math concepts. This can lead to frustration, causing students to give up and form a negative math identity. And teachers struggle to determine whether students need support with reading comprehension or math skills and strategies.
The Resulting Haphazard Approach
The result is often a haphazard approach: plucking numbers from the problem, relying on recent class lessons, and solving without considering the context. The focus is on finding an answer, rather than understanding the situation.
When asked what strategies teachers tried that haven’t worked, one survey respondent replied “Vocabulary words connected to mathematical expressions. Teaching students that “all together” means “add” confuses them when they come across multi-step word problems or even irregular uses of the word! It keeps them from understanding the action of the word problems. Instead it has them grabbing two numbers and a vocabulary word to create an expression without true comprehension!”
Jamal had 6 cookies. He had 3 more cookies than Diego. How many cookies did Diego have?
When students focus on keywords instead of comprehending the story problem, they pull out the numbers 3 and 6, see the word “more” and add.
The Role of Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension plays a crucial role here. Some students struggle with decoding the text and dealing with unknown words. Others fail to grasp the connection between math and literary stories, missing out on essential comprehension skills.
Strategies for success
Navigating the sea of strategies can be daunting, but the most effective ones center on helping students make sense of word problems. In my upcoming blog posts, we’ll explore different strategies, their advantages, and potential pitfalls.
By understanding the challenges students face with word problems and implementing effective strategies, we can provide the foundational skills to improve math comprehension and problem-solving skills.
Ready to dive into a systematic approach to solving word problems?
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*The survey was administered to 168 elementary school teachers in North Carolina, primarily from Wake County. Respondents were a diverse group of teachers across different grade levels and job titles. Most were general education teachers.