There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in the flock. How old is the shepherd? Wait a minute? What? When presented with this problem, 75% of 8th graders answered with a number. When students are taught to only look for keywords without thinking about the meaning of the problem, students will often struggle with problem-solving. Below are four pitfalls with teaching students keywords as a problem-solving strategy.
Teaching students keywords sends the wrong message about math. Math classrooms were once about getting the right answer. With technology today, students do not need to focus solely on getting the right answer but more on the process of figuring out how they arrive at the answer. Although a correct answer is the end goal, having students persevere through the process is much more important.
Keywords are often misleading. Students are often taught that “in all” always means to add. Consider this problem: There are three boxes of chicken nuggets on the table. Each box contains six chicken nuggets. How many chicken nuggets are there in all? If students are simply taught to find the keywords, they will think the answer is nine and not eighteen.
Many problems have no keywords. With the shift in math from simply finding the answer to unrealistic word problems to solving real-world applications, many problems students will be presented with have no keywords. For example, Aidan has 28 goldfish. 12 are orange and the rest are yellow. How many goldfish are yellow?
Keywords don’t work for two-step or multi-step word problems. As students progress in their math knowledge, some of the “rules” they are taught in the elementary grades “expire.” Keywords is one of these rules. In second grade, students are introduced to two-step word problems. If they are only taught to hunt for keywords, they will miss the meaning of the problem and will often struggle with two-step or multi-step word problems.
So, how should we teach students to solve word problems? Teaching reading comprehension strategies in the math classroom is the most effective way for students to be taught how to solve word problems. Teaching students to look for the structure of the problem, giving a summary, visualizing or acting out the problem are effective reading comprehension strategies that can be used.
Just as many other skills in math, students need to be taught for conceptual understanding rather than just rote memorization. For more strategies to use for teaching students word problems visit the Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had website.