When you see the phrase word problems, what type of emotion do you feel? Panic? Alarm? Worry?
I know for me when I see word problems, it usually means let me brew some coffee and add a piece of chocolate on the side to calm my nerves and help me stay sane.
I'm pretty sure that word problems were created by mathematicians to make teachers and homeschool moms pull their hair out.
My daughter was always able to grasp math concepts easily until it came to word problems. Part of her issue was that she struggled with reading. As soon as she saw the words, she shut down and stopped trying.
Instead of getting frustrated with her I reached into my reading bag of tricks and decided to try a couple of different strategies to help her get over her phobia of word problems.
Read the Problem to Them
Since reading was the true issue, I read the problems to her. I always had her at least look at the words while I read so she could follow along. I knew eventually she'd be able to do it on her own and I didn't want her to loose confidence in her math ability due to reading being an issue. Over time we used shared reading and then she started reading them on her own.
This may seem counter productive but teaching the math concept is more important that focusing on the reading part. Listening comprehension is always higher than silent reading comprehension. By having her listen to the problem she could fully understand what the word problem was asking her to do.
Read the Problem AGAIN and AGAIN
Once my daughter could read the problems by herself, her newest frustration was not being able to get the answer quickly. She wanted to just look at it and be able to answer it.
This is very common. Kids want to rush and be done. They don't understand that word problems are almost the same as reading non-fiction, you have to think about what you are reading.
However if you, as an adult, read a word problem to find an answer you'll see that you had to read it multiple times. The first time you read it to familiarize yourself, the second to know what they want you to do, and the third to figure out the numbers that you need to use to find the answer. You might even possible read it again to verify that you are doing it correctly.
Read the Problem Aloud and Think Aloud
My daughter could read the problem but wasn't always sure what they were asking her to do. When they were basic problems it was easier but as they started to get longer and include extra information she had to learn to cut out unnecessary information.
When you read something aloud, it helps you to understand what you're reading better. If you've ever been putting something together usually while reading the instructions you read the instructions aloud. This is part of the listening comprehension that I mentioned earlier.
The next step is to think aloud. This means literally narrating what their brain is thinking. It may take you modeling it for them first but once they hear what your brain is thinking they'll understand what they need to do. They'll probably think it's silly but just be patient. By hearing what their brain is thinking you'll be able to redirect any faulty thinking.
Read the Problem and Substitute Names
Names seems to be a major hang up for my daughter. She felt like she couldn't move on until she figured out how to say that particular name.
At one point in my teaching career, I helped write word problems for the state. They wanted the names that we used in the problems to be diverse. I completely understood wanting everyone to feel included however some names were ridiculous.
Kids tend to get caught up in trying to sound out names and forget what they were reading. Too much brain power is used on the wrong thing.
I've always told me daughter and my students to look at the first letter and either say the first letter and move on or rename the person. For example the name Anastasia, they would either just say "A" or call her Ana. Getting the name right doesn't affect the word problem so it doesn't really matter.
Some curriculum teaches to focus on clue words. If you look on Pinterest there are a slew of ideas about clue words. When they are in the lower grades the clue words can help, however as the math concepts get harder the clue words can confuse them.
In my opinion, the problem with clue words is that they don't always help. There are times that one clue word can mean to add or multiply. Also often times there are multiple clue words in the same problem. In my experience this confuses the kids and leaves them back where they started, not liking word problems.
I have found that by using these reading strategies to help my daughter and several students over the years, they've been able to master the art of word problems.
The biggest trick is to not get YOUR feathers ruffled. Show them how cool and calm you remain even though you haven't a clue what the question is asking. Also admit that you are lost. They won't feel so alone.
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I'm praying for you!