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Mathematics Word Problems – What If You Asked the Question First?

Are you a math teacher? Are you the parent of a child or teenager taking a math class? If yes to either question, then I’m sure you’ve seen students struggle with word problems. It’s so frustrating to watch and we want to help them so much.

A constant complaint from math teachers is that students are unable to deal with word problems. This inability to deal with such problems often becomes a major obstacle to success in mathematics courses (Nolan 1984). National trends in math problem solving, as measured by the 1986 National Assessment of Educational Progress, indicate that students even at age 17 have difficulty solving word problems (Dossey et al. 1988) .

When asked, many students who struggle with word problems say that

a) they cannot decide what is important in the problem and what is not,

b) they cannot determine what information in the problem will help them and what information is just put there as a distractor, and/or

c) they don’t know how to calculate the solution once they have identified the problem.

As Kresse (1984, 598) quoted: “Research using ‘students who do not correctly solve (word) problems’ indicated that 95% of the sixth-graders tested could read all the words correctly, 98 % knew the situation the problem was talking about, 92% knew what the problems were asking you to find, but only 36% knew how to solve the problem (Knifong and Holtron, 1977).

There are many reasons why students have this difficulty, including semantic, syntactic, contextual, and structural features (Silver and Thompson 1984). One possible approach to overcoming some of these difficulties is to “rewrite” the problems so that the question appears first, instead of last.

Reading teachers often ask students questions before having them read, so students know what to look for and thus have a better understanding. It makes sense that this same strategy also improves students’ understanding of word problems in math. Teachers in the math classroom are not expected to be teacher-readers, but it is up to us to rely on strategies that have been found to be beneficial by teacher-readers in our quest to enable students to correctly solve word problems – and without the fear that so many of them feel.

So… it’s worth a try the next time you watch a youngster who doesn’t know what to do next when faced with a word problem in their math class. Encourage the student to first jump to the question, then go back to the beginning of the problem and use that knowledge to determine what to do.

You will observe success – and feel your own relief – and theirs!

References

Dossey, John A.; Mullis, Ina VS; Lindquist, Mary M.; & Chambers, Donald L. The Mathematics Report Card: Do We Measure Up? Trends and achievements based on 1986 National Assessment. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1988.

Kresse, Elaine Campbell. “Using Reading as a Thinking Process to Solve Math Story Problems”, Journal of Reading 27, (1984): 598-601.

Nolan, James F. “Reading in the Content Domain of Mathematics.” In M. DuPuis (Ed.), Reading in Content Areas: Research for Teachers (pp. 28-41). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1984.

Silver, Edward A. & Thompson, Alba G. “Research Perspectives on Problem Solving in Elementary School Mathematics.” The Elementary School Journal 84, (May 1984): 529-545.

Stiff, Leo V. “Understanding Word Problems.” Professor of Mathematics 79, (March 1986): 163-165, 215.

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