Introducing Word Problems

Why do kids that have no difficulty with computation suddenly become totally confused when given a word problem?

Kids tend to look for the quickest and easiest way to complete a lesson. Therefore, once they see a pattern, they simply plug in the assigned numbers. Since this does not require understanding, they can appear to be a whiz at math. Their secret is only revealed when those rare word problems come along and they fall apart. Therefore, it is essential that young children begin by solving problems within the context of daily life-allowing understanding and the practicality of math to become part of their math experience. For example, tell a child, “You and your sister may each have 2 cookies.” Then ask, “How many cookies should I get out of the jar?”

Those children that can’t answer quickly should then go to the cookie jar and count out two cookies for each person and then count the total. Follow up by saying, “Yes, two cookies for you plus two cookies for Jane equal four cookies. How would we write that problem?” The equation can be then be written down.

“Here are 5 plates to set the table. There are 4 people eating. Will I have any plates left over?” Here the child can physically place one plate at each of 4 seats. One plate will remain in his hand. Now write the problem as you explain: 5 (plates) – (take away) 4 (plates that you placed on the table) = (leaves, or equals) 1 (plate).

Begin by using five or fewer objects when subtracting, and two groups of five or less each when adding. Problems should only require one-step-either adding or subtracting, at this level. However, mix the type of problems. Even when using manipulatives and conversation, kids will look for a pattern and might add simply because the previous problem required addition rather than taking time to think it through.

When using written word problems, allow the children to use pictures or objects to act it out in order to make it more understandable. Continue to direct their thinking by asking questions:

  • Tell me the problem in your own words.
  • What do you need to find out?
  • Do you have all the information you need? Is there information you don’t need?
  • Should you add or subtract? What tells you that you should add (or subtract)?
  • Draw a picture or use anipulatives to show me what you need to do.

Once children have completed the addition or subtraction, help them develop the habit of checking their work. At this level it simply involves adding or subtracting a second time and deciding whether or not the answer makes sense (is reasonable).