Laila got 5 books at the library. Now she has 12 books. How many books did Laila have before?
Awesome!, I thought, This kid gets it. Her peer confirmed that he agreed by explaining the same idea in a different way. When the group got back together, the discussion focused on what key word the students saw to help them identify the operation needed. Key word? I thought. These students had understanding without a key word. Isn't that every math teacher's dream? Across the room I saw students struggle to identify a key word when they had been explaining their thinking with confidence just moments earlier. This observation caused me to stop and reflect.
In my first year as working as a coach in the elementary schools, the number one issue I hear from teachers is that their students struggle with word problems. This is usually followed by letting me know that they teach the key words strategy. These questions got me thinking about how I can best help. As I was reflecting on this issue, I started thinking…
If we are using a strategy and students continue to struggle, wouldn’t this indicate that we should try another strategy?
I heard a teacher state very strongly that “of” always meant multiply. But what about this problem?
Scott made 12 of the 30 shots he took. What percentage of his shots did he make?
Fellow coach Annie Forest wrote a great blog post about giving up the key word ghost. She offers some wonderful suggestions for alternative strategies to teach students to become problem solvers. I’d like to add a few more:
Draw it Out / Act it Out / Talk it Out
I tell my students that I draw pictures for EVERYTHING. It’s how my brain works. Drawing pictures can help illuminate the concepts and operations in a problem. Similarly, sometimes you need to actually go through the motions to see what the problem is asking for. Physically putting things together or separating them can help students realize what actions they need to take to solve a problem. Additionally, sometimes talking it over allows you to hear your own thoughts and clarify confusion without even having to ask a question.
Don’t do this often, because your students are going to start getting annoyed. However, a problem early on in the year that has no solvable answer will train students to start more critically thinking about what the question is asking. It gets them out of the robotic motions many students go through when solving word problems.
Problem Solving Framework
Creating a framework of questions students ask themselves about the problem trains them to think about word problems in more universal ways. These strategies are more versatile and useful than boxing numbers and circling key words.
Overall, let’s support each other and our students in thinking about word problems in a new way. I've changed my thinking, and I hope others do too.