Strategies for teaching word problems
Schema-based instruction, which teaches students to focus on the underlying structure of math word problems, improves learning for students of all levels.
I became interested in looking for better ways to teach math problems because of my daughter, who suffered brain damage in early childhood which inhibited her development of language skills. Despite this delay in developing language, she showed great understanding of mathematical concepts at an early age. I remember being amazed when she showed us how the calendar repeats itself every 28 years and quickly mastered her multiplication tables. However, she continued to have a difficult time solving math word problems.
The Problem with Math Word Problems
She’s not alone. Many students – both in mainstream and special education – struggle with math word problems. It’s easy to get lost in the problem’s surface details, rather than understanding the mathematical language and concepts and applying the relevant operation to solve the problem. For the past six years, I’ve been studying the effectiveness of “schema-based instruction, ” a teaching method that helps students categorize and organize problems into different types and identify strategies based on the underlying mathematical similarity. I believe that schema-based instruction can be a powerful tool for math teachers and parents to empower student success.
Math word problems have traditionally been problematic for many students. A student may read two problems and believe them to be different because of the language and situation presented. For example, a problem about how far a bicycle can travel at a certain speed and another problem with a scenario involving a spaceship might appear to be very different – but at their core are similar rate problems. Through schema-based instruction, we help the student focus on the underlying problem structure and represent the problem text using visual schematic diagrams that show how quantities in a word problem are related.
Schema-Based Instruction in Math
I’ve been studying the promise that schema-based instruction has for elementary and middle school students. It is well documented that many students, especially those struggling in math, jump immediately into calculating the answers when solving math word problems without understanding the premise and reasoning whether the answer is meaningful. With schema-based instruction, we get to the essence of a math word problem by having the student identify what type of problem it is (ratio, proportion, percent of change, etc.) and the relevant information needed to solve the problem. Then we teach them to use schematic diagrams that help them visualize how quantities in a word problem are related. Because comprehension is particularly difficult for many students struggling in math, we provide schematic diagrams as they translate and integrate information in the problem into the representation before they are taught to construct their own diagrams.