By PATRICK MCNAMARA
Why are mathematical word problems worrisome for children?
Word problems take math concepts, such as arithmetic, geometry and algebra, and relate them back to the real world. But somehow, in the conversion from numbers and symbols to the written word, even students adept at math can become confused and discouraged. In fact, children often find it easier to solve a problem that explicitly asks them to multiply two numbers rather than tackle a word problem that requires the same mathematical skills.
In addition to knowledge of core math concepts, word problems also require strong reading comprehension skills. Before a child can solve a word problem, he needs to be able to translate the problem into a math equation.
Once a child deciphers a word problem and is able to convert it into a simple equation, most students can easily calculate the answer. Unfortunately, determining the right equation is often the most challenging part of problem-solving. By applying reading comprehension skills to their math homework, students are better able to solve word problems correctly.
What parents need to know
A child’s ability to understand the language in word problems influences his or her ability to solve them. One of the best ways to help children learn math and make it more enjoyable is to demonstrate how everyday activities incorporate core math skills.
Parents can make it easier for their children to understand word problems by making math a part of their child’s daily life. By showing how math skills and concepts are involved in real-life situations, you can help children learn to use math in practical ways.
Students must first have a good understanding of the basic math principles that each word problem utilizes. For example, if a child struggles with basic division, then a word problem that involves division will also be difficult to solve. Get to the root of the problem first, and then work on a solution.
Because solving word problems require good reading comprehension skills, if parents find that their child continues to struggle with word problems, notwithstanding good efforts and a grasp of the underlying math concepts, parents should consider getting their child’s reading comprehension skills assessed. What appears to be a problem with math may in fact be a struggle with reading comprehension.
What parents can do
Parents can help their children approach word problems with more confidence by offering tips and suggestions for tackling them. Encourage children to draw pictures and look for key words that indicate certain mathematical operations. For example, “and” indicates addition, while “less than” is a sign of subtraction.
Parents should urge their children to do more than the assigned problems, particularly those that are of a type that are more challenging to them. Extra practice might require their children to create their own additional problems. That exercise itself will reinforce understanding, and the extra practice will help children learn the mathematical formulas and techniques they need to know while helping to improve their problem-solving skills. In turn, this will lead to greater confidence in their abilities to tackle the more difficult problems.
To help children boost their critical thinking and word problem-solving skills, parents should consider the following tips to help their children decode word problems, gather key information, solve equations and check their answers:
Read the question carefully. Ask your child to read and reread the question to make sure that he understands what he is being asked to solve. Encourage him to read the question aloud and pay close attention to the final question of the word problem.
Understand the problem. Encourage her to simplify the word problem by highlighting the main words and important ideas. Have the student ask herself the following questions: What am I being asked to do? What are the important facts? Do I have enough information to solve the problem? What operation will I use?
Convert the verbal statement into a mathematical equation. Help him break the word problem into manageable, ordered steps. It’s a good idea to do the work step-by-step, particularly if it’s a complicated problem with several parts. It’s easier to keep the pieces of the problem in order if he works this way and easier to avoid mistakes. Have him begin by identifying key words such as “add” “less” and “product of” that indicate certain mathematical operations. Creating flash cards that connect these operations to certain words can reinforce that skill.
Generate the result. Encourage her to solve the mathematical problem using a technique such as drawing or mentally acting out the problem. After she finishes, make sure the results make sense and that she writes the answer in the appropriate units (e.g., hours, meters, kilometers, etc.). As a final step, have her translate the answer back into English. For example, “The son is 13 years old.”
Patrick McNamara is the owner and executive director at Sylvan Learning of Albany and Clifton Park. For more information, visit SylvanLearning.com.