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

Are you a math teacher? Are you a parent of a child or teenager taking a maths course? If the answer is yes to any of the questions, I’m sure you’ve seen students struggle with word problems. It is very frustrating to see them and we really want to help them.

A perennial complaint of math teachers is that students are unable to deal with word problems. This inability to deal with these 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 17-year-olds, have difficulty solving word problems (Dossey et al. 1988).

When asked, many students who struggle with words say so

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

b) they cannot determine what information about the problem will help them and what information is only put there as a distraction, and/or

c) they can’t figure out how to calculate the solution once they figure out what the problem is.

As cited by Kresse (1984, 598): “Research using ‘students who do not solve (word) problems correctly’ indicated that 95% of sixth graders tested could read all the words correctly, 98% knew situation dealing with the problem, 92% knew). what problems they asked you to find, but only 36% knew how to solve the problem (Knifong & 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, rather than last.

Reading teachers often ask students questions before they have them read, so that students know what to look for and therefore have a better understanding. It makes sense that this same strategy would also improve math students’ word problem comprehension. Teachers in the math classroom are not expected to be reading teachers, but we should take advantage of strategies that reading teachers have found beneficial in our research to enable students to solve word problems correctly, and without fear of so many of them. feel

So… it’s worth a try the next time you see a youngster who is confused about what to do next when faced with a word problem in their math classroom. Encourage the student to jump to the question first, then go back to the beginning of the problem and use that knowledge to determine what to do.

You will see success, and you will feel your own relief and theirs!

**References**

Dossey, John A.; Mullis, Ina VS; Lindquist, Mary M.; & Chambers, Donald L. The mathematics report card: Are we measuring? Trends and Achievement Based on the 1986 National Assessment. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1988.

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

Nolan, James F. “Reading in the Content Area of Mathematics”. In M. DuPuis (Ed.), Reading in the 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.” Mathematics Teacher 79, (March 1986): 163-165, 215.

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