September 6, 2011

Tackling Word Problems

Yesterday Hunter-Roo came upon some word problems in his Singapore math.  Hannah Jane just spent several days on Khan Academy doing arithmetic word problems and they really challenged her, so I was surprised to see them pop up in the pre-Kindergarten level of Singapore.  Needless to say, he was clueless.  The workbook didn't actually teach the kids any skills with which to tackle word problems, so we really had some work to do.  But I'm glad it came up.  I mean, what's the point, really, of math if you can't apply it?

Ignore the hair clip.  It's for study time only :)

So we hit the white board with a tray and some popsicle sticks.  Kids LOVE to erase white boards and move things around, so this is a very inviting activity for them.  I can't explain why, but they love it.  The problem in his book that prompted all of this was as follows:  There are 8 apples in the box.  4 of them are red.  How many are green? 

Can you say clueless?  I decided to change this up a bit and say, "Let's say you have a bag of 8 pop sticks.  you take out 4.  How many are left?"  We talked about acting it out with our tray and the pop sticks we had in front of us.  I had him take away the 4 sticks and then see how many were left.  Then we discussed how we might decide whether we used addition or subtraction.

Every time I thought he understood, I'd give him a similar problem, but with the inverse operation and no matter what the problem was, he would state the operation used in the previous problem.  Clearly, we were still not getting it.  We acted out several more and I really emphasized that when you take some pop sticks off the tray, you are subtracting.  When you add pop sticks to the tray, you are adding.

I really must admit that I was a little floored at how good he can be at solving arithmetic problems, but how the application of such problems eludes him.  He knows what to do for each symbol, but has no idea what it really means.  So this was a good thing.

I told him that once he got 2 in a row, we could be done for the day.  After about 15 of these, he seemed to finally get it.  I would draw a scenario on the white board and he would write the number sentence. He was really proud of himself when he finally figured it out.  We'll be doing a few of these each day to make sure we don't forget our newly acquired skill and to make sure that it becomes second nature.

Actually doing the math, not just writing it, is an invaluable tool.  There's a math teacher who I admire so very much that takes every single math problem in his students' books, acts it out on video, and has them watch it or make their own videos so that the are actually applying the concept in the real world.  It's amazing!  He says that if the students are to calculate how long it will take to fill a bucket with a slow hose, they should have to sit through how long it actually takes to fill that bucket and see if their answer makes sense.  That once they have to do that, their work will have meaning to them.  Granted, he teaches calculus and I'm teaching arithmetic, but I think the principal applies at every level. 

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