Teacher Talk: Tackling Math Story Problems

Q: Last year, my daughter struggled with math story problems. It’s the same story this year in eighth grade. She has no trouble reading the words but still can’t understand how to get the answer. Is there any way to help her?
— Challenged

A: Your daughter is not alone. Solving story problems in math is a major roadblock for many students even in the upper grades. Even good readers find them challenging to understand as it’s hard to sort out relationships with so many facts and figures jammed into just a few words.

To learn to solve word problems, your daughter must solve problems. In other words, the more problems your daughter solves, the better her problem-solving skills will become. Use the following four steps to help her learn how to tackle story problems with more confidence:
1. Understand the problem. Your daughter must be able to examine the information in a problem first. Have her write down all the known and unknown facts about the problem. She might even find it helpful to draw a diagram to show the facts and relationships of a problem. Have her cross out all the irrelevant information and re-read the last sentence several times, as it usually will tell what needs to be found out to solve the problem.
2. Think of ways to solve the problem. This is difficult until children gain more experience and are able to relate previously solved problems to current problems. In complex one-step problems, it can be helpful for kids to find the biggest number and then decide whether the answer is likely to be more or less than this number. If it’s more, using addition or multiplication will probably solve the problem. If it’s less, they will usually subtract or divide to get the answer. It can also help to simplify a problem by using much smaller numbers.
3. Solve the problem. When doing the actual calculation, children have to make sure that they’re using the right numbers and that their calculations are correct.
4. Double-check the answer. Getting an answer is not the end to problem solving. Children need to consider whether their answer is reasonable. Does it make sense? Were their calculations correct? They also should think about ways to check the correctness of an answer.

Q When I enrolled my child in kindergarten, I had the opportunity to choose one of two teachers. Since I did not know either one, I said it didn’t matter. Now I discover that my son has the teacher who does not teach near as many reading and writing skills as the other teacher. How can I make sure that he has all the academics needed for first grade?
— Concerned

A Schools usually mix students from different teachers when children enter a new grade. Thus, the first-grade teachers at your son’s school should be used to handling children who have been in either teacher’s kindergarten class. Unfortunately, we have seen schools where the children who have not had as much work in reading and writing are at a definite disadvantage on entering first grade.

You need to talk to one of the first-grade teachers to find out exactly what your child is going to be expected to do when school starts next fall. If it looks like he will not have the necessary academic skills, take this up now with his current teacher and the principal. Find out exactly how this problem will be handled. You may need to enroll your son in summer school or a learning center to help him get the skills that he’ll need on day one in first grade.

Q For several years I have wanted to home school my child. I want to teach with other parents. How can I find a cooperative home-school group near my home?
— Future Home-schooler

A Home-school groups of all shapes and sizes are popping up constantly. Begin by contacting your state’s home-school association and asking them for referrals to local groups. Other ways to find local groups include surfing the Internet, asking at schools and churches, checking library bulletin boards, asking at teacher supply stores and, finally, asking parents who you see out during the day with their children.

When you find a local cooperative group that you might be able to join, visit it to see if the other parents share your educational philosophy.

Parents should send questions to Dear Teacher, in care of Charlotte Parent, P.O. Box 395, Carmel, IN 46082-0395 or DearTeacher@excite.com.