Improve Comprehension of Math Word Problems

It’s easy to see how literacy instruction fits within language arts, science, and social studies. But it’s also vital in our math instruction. According to research, “Students do anywhere from 10-30 percent worse on word problems than when the same problem is presented in mathematical form.” (J. Kintsch, Understanding Word Problems)

Understanding Word Problems

Some may think, I bet it’s even higher than that! But regardless of the statistic, here’s what it means–Students are not struggling with the math; they are struggling with the reading.

To focus on the comprehension of word problems, have students write out their mathematician’s thought process, step by step without solving the problem. If we think of the math word problem as the “Reading Voice,” then this thinking and the written explanation becomes their “Thinking Voice.” In the sample problem below, you’ll notice that the problem is written on the left (black text), but the teacher intentionally left space on the right (red text) for the student to walk through the thinking process.

Thinking Voice and Reading Voice

[NOTE: This strategy requires reformatting your handouts so that the word problem is on the left and there is plenty of room on the right side for students to write out their step-by-step thinking.]

As students articulate every mathematical thought they are having, teachers can trace their process and fix-up misunderstandings.

  • Does the student understand the context of the problem?
  • Is the student misreading anything?
  • Is the student misunderstanding anything?
  • Does the student infer steps that are not explicitly stated in the problem?
  • Are they executing steps out of order?

All of this becomes clear when we put the emphasis on students explaining their thinking without solving the problem.

Remember the research. It’s a reading comprehension issue. It’s a Reading Voice/Thinking Voice issue. It’s not just about “doing” the math. It’s about telling what they’re going to do and why they’re going to do it that will show whether or not they’re understanding the problem.

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