Fix-It: Five Ways to Fix Word Problems

Word problems aren't the problem. A novel is a sprawling word problem. A video game is a symbolic word problem. An argument in a relationship is a word problem. Though none of those examples are mathematical, they demonstrate that we are often solving problems in ways that are relevant and engaging.

People use math to solve problems all the time. If I'm on a road trip, I'm thinking about miles per hour and miles per gallon as I figure out when and where to stop for gas. When I'm on a long run along the canal, I use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out distance. When I multiply a recipe, I'm multiplying fractions.

Math word problems often suck, because they are bad stories. I want to point out that none of this is new. I've seen Dan Meyer, David Wees and Jose Vilson write about these ideas. And the truth is that constructivist educators have been pointing out these ideas for years. But here are my thoughts on how we could fix word problems:

  1. Let kids develop their own problems based upon a scenario. In other words, give students part of a problem and let them wade through the information on their own. For example, I asked students to find the "best division in football" and students compared winning percentages and difficulty of schedule. It was a word problem, true, but it was more of a scenario and a set of resources. 
  2. Use a real context. Our math book asks students to play the role of a catcher using the Pythagorean Theorem to throw out a runner on second base. I would love to interview Buster Posey and ask him how often he uses math. My guess is it's more often than it first appears. But my second guess is that it never involves the Pythagorean Theorem. Note: it also works well to use a fantastical context. So, add a few dragons and maybe a unicorn or two. How else do you explain math wizards? 
  3. Write better stories. Use the Elements of Literature: I wrote about this seven or eight years ago and I still find it valid. Kids love good stories. They love real conflict. So, when using linear equations, let them find which taxi is a better deal or whether Dish or Direct TV work out better for customers. Make it interesting, not simply by adding pop culture or sports figures, but by finding real conflicts that might need to be solved. 
  4. Use fewer problems and engage students in discourse. Let them share their processes and talk about the most effective ways to set up and solve a problem. Let students use manipulatives or draw pictures if necessary and then help them see how an algorithm is like a cheat code in a video game. Allow students to use mental math to build up their number sense. 
  5. Support language. I know this might pertain more to my own context, but some kids struggle with word problems because they are written with passive voice or they use the future perfect verb tense. So, help students grammatically as you craft word problems. 

photo credit: Nick Sherman via photopin cc


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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