Not sure when the reverence for word problems emerged, but it seems that children are almost exclusively taught math through word problems.  I believe it’s linked to the theory that math should always be enhancing “higher order thinking.”

Let’s look at Chris, age 7, a second grader who is given a worksheet with 10 problems.  Here’s one that he received as part of a 10-problem test:

“Winnie counts the oranges she picks.  Winnie counted between 400 and 500 oranges.  The number of oranges is an odd number.  The number of oranges is the sum of two of the numbers below.  (Show your work.”)

137                  258                  114                  164                  281

After Chris muddles through the ten problems with no idea what he was doing, at the top of the page was a grade of  “40%  (F).”

Keeping in mind the fact that Chris is just seven and doesn’t know what a % sign means or even what an  “F” represents, there’s also another  point to consider just using this problem as an example.

Within this problem, Chris also had no idea what an “odd number” was or the meaning of the word “sum.”

Then there’s Kelsey, a confused 8-year-old who is given:

Cullen wants to make 55 pizzas.  He makes 19 in the morning and 35 in the afternoon.  Does he reach his goal?”

“Wait,” Kelsey thinks,  “What goal?  I thought they were talking about making pizzas.  Who scored a goal?”

Needless to say,  Kelsey had no idea how to answer the question.

Takeaway Point

Confusion often reigns with the usage of math word problems.  Before concluding that your child may have some type of mathematical disability, try and figure out where the breakdown is occurring.  It may not be where you think it is.

In the examples above, the breakdown started with confusion of vocabulary.

Feel free to make comment below. 

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