Uttering "word problems" in a primary classroom is almost guaranteed to bring about sighs, moans, and groans....and occasionally tears. Most young children love stories, puzzles, and riddles. So why to they have such a hard time and often even HATE math word problems?
From my experience, it seems that 2nd grade is where the breakdown begins to happens. In first grade, students feel successful with easy word problems such as "There are five birds sitting in a tree and four birds sitting on the ground. How many birds are there in all?" The problem likely has an easy to understand picture to go with it and manipulatives are often easily accessible if needed. However, during second grade the complexity of the word problems increases and students simply don't know how to approach solving the more challenging problems.
Let's take a look at three ways problem solving practice is typically used in the primary grades that hinders rather than promotes the development of true problem solvers.
Word problems are often placed at the end of the lesson. So, when the teacher is pressed for time the problem solving is simply omitted. Even if the teacher makes it to this point in the lesson, the students have likely lost interest.
Most math curriculum in the primary grades limit the problem solving practice to the skill being focused on that day. If the daily lesson is focused on 2 digit subtraction then the accompanying word problems will be 2 digit subtraction. This predictability does not help students become true problem solvers.
Most word problems provided with the adopted curriculum are one step problems involving only two numbers. Repeated exposure to this type of problem trains young students that they don't really have to read the problem carefully. They just need to look for the two numbers hidden among all those words and add them together....and they often get the right answer.
Often, in order to see true growth, we have to approach problem solving differently. Young learners benefit from having purposeful problem solving practice embedded in a variety of ways throughout the math block. Why is this important? Problem solving situations give children the opportunity to deepen their understanding of the math concepts they are learning by using their own strategies as they decide how to work through the problem. Purposeful problem solving can be solved using a variety of strategies and methods. This encourages higher level thinking and encourages students to move beyond their basic skills.
One of the most important skills we can teach our students is how to solve problems. This skill needs to be heavily modeled and scaffolded during the primary years in order to form a solid foundation that can be drawn upon throughout their lives.
Make sure that problem solving is a priority in your classroom and provide ample opportunities for your students to apply their skills and knowledge to interesting and meaningful problem solving situations.
Effective teachers model good problem solving skills for their students on a regular basis. Young children often try to attack a problem without a plan in mind. By using guiding questions, the teacher can help students formulate a plan for solving the problem without telling them exactly what to do. It is important to work through a TON of problems together!
There is no nice way to say it....Problem solving is hard for young kids and they are going to make mistakes. It is important to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable and are not afraid to experiment, try new things, and make mistakes.
Most of the time, students should be given a mix of word problems to solve rather than sets of problems based on a specific skill.
Ongoing informal assessment of young problem solvers is important. It is important that teachers gather evidence of learning by observing students' work AND by listening to them discuss and explain their thinking.
Remember, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign a grade to this type of mathematical learning. The purpose of ongoing informal assessment is to gain a clear picture of the student's level of understanding so you can make informed instructional decisions on where to head next with the child. As a teacher, you want to be looking for evidence of growth in the areas such as developing a plan to approach the problem, using a variety of strategies to solve problems, and being able to communicate their thinking effectively.
It is helpful to incorporate problem solving throughout the math block. I love using word problems as a warm up to start the math block. Students work on solving the problem independently and then we use a variety of methods to share how we got the answer. This sharing time is sometimes simply placing student work samples on the document camera to discuss. Other times, students explain their thinking to a partner. These are only a couple of ideas....but the sharing possibilities are endless!!!! Students LOVE to share and the mathematical talk that occurs is extremely beneficial in increasing understanding.
Partner Problem Solving is a student favorite in my classroom. In the beginning of the year, I frequently model for students how to "coach" your partner without doing the work for them or telling them the answer. Working with a partner facilitates a lot of mathematical discussion. Student quickly become experts in finding errors in their partner's thinking and it helps to facilitate a deeper level of understanding when they are able to explain the mistake to their partner.
It is important to teach a variety of strategies for solving problems. Students need ample opportunities to practice applying various problem solving strategies. Common problem solving strategies such as Guess and Test, Look for a Pattern, Act out the Problem, Draw a Picture, Make a Table of Graph, Work Backwards, and many others should be frequently reviewed and practiced. These strategies should be viewed as tools that the student should be comfortable using whenever needed.
Expose your students to a variety of purposeful word problems that were created specifically to promote higher level thinking and the development of problem solving skills. Discuss the structure of the different problems with the students. Allow students to experiment with writing their own purposeful problems so that they become more comfortable and less afraid of problem solving.
This is the series of word problems that I use in my second grade classroom.
The problems are created around a variety of highly engaging thematic topics which helps to keep student interest high.
I change the format of instruction from week to week...sometimes from day to day so that the students are exposed to as many problems as possible in a variety of methods.