Saturday, 31 March 2012

Would you read a dictionary? So why don't you like word problems in math?

Every so often, I'll ask my class whether anyone "would rather be in an English class right now."  Inevitably, I'll get a few people willing to confirm that math is not their favourite subject ... and I'll try to contain my smile.

I proceed by handing out a dictionary, a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style and another grammar book.  Usually one of my volunteers is a little more outgoing, so I'll ask them to read a bit from the book they've been given.  After they've read a couple of lines, I'll take over and ask whether that's the kind of book they typically read, or would they usually choose another type of book.

At this point, I'll start reading from a novel with great description (The Hobbit, Invisible Cities) and ask them what's going on in their minds while I read.  Once they get over the shock of a math teacher reading to them, someone will advise that they're picturing the scene.  Step one of solving a word problem covered - draw a diagram.

To get to step two, I write out a clause and description filled sentence on the board, such as:  "As the geese honked with anticipation, the terrified boy wandered along the path through the deep and forbidding forest," and ask the students what's going on?  It doesn't take too long to get to 'the boy walked along a path through a forest."  I cross out the initial clause, cross out the rest of the descriptive words and 'translate' wandered to walked.  I close by saying that math is nothing but another language so why not take the same approach when reading word problems that you do with books.  I ask the students what the nouns, verbs and grammar of math is and get some examples of the following:

  • The nouns of math:  numbers and variables
  • The verbs of math:  the operations (sine, multiply)
  • The grammar of math:  formulae
So far, this approach seems to be working.  The two times that I've used this introduction, my students have gone from groaning about math word problems to ... gentle mutters.  I confirm that the dictionary is just as important as the drill math question ... but once you've mastered the initial skills / grammar, it's time to move to real world applications.

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