A Meaning Making Approach to Word Problems

Here is a typical story or word problem.

Dakota helped her father bake cookies. They baked 9 sugar cookies and 3 chocolate chip cookies. How many cookies did they bake total?

When solving word problem the focus is often on following steps, e.g. read the problem and identify important information. There is also a focus on identifying key words, e.g. “total.” The problem with both is they rely on rote memorization. How do we identify “important” information? Focusing on the word such as total does not address the concept of total but is more of a signaled command like “sit.” Students see “total” and they know they are supposed to add. The problem is they often don’t understand why.

The entry point to word problems should be a focus on the underlying concepts.¬†For example, present the word problem with cutouts of the actual cookies and physically demonstrate “total” by pulling all the cookies together. Similarly, you can have cutouts of the tadpoles and demonstrate the concept of how many are left.

word problems focus on concept first concept first approach

Words are symbolic representations of ideas. Same with math symbols (below). Addressing the concepts, vocabulary and the process with this approach is a concrete-representational-approach (CRA). The equations below would not be addressed until the conceptual understanding was developed. When word problems presented do not include the term “total” the student can process the context as opposed to being reliant on the signal.

word problems focus on concept first traditional approach