Word problems are tricky. To get the right answer, your child has to be able to read the words, figure out which mathematical operations to use and then perform the calculations correctly. A breakdown in any of these areas can lead to difficulty with word problems.
If your child seems to be good at math but has trouble with word problems, here are possible reasons why—and ways you can help.
Trouble With Reading
If your child is struggling with word problems, it’s important to figure out whether he has difficulty with reading in general. If he can get the correct answers when you read word problems to him but not when he reads them on his own, he’s probably having trouble with reading.
How you can help: Ask your child’s teacher to read word problems out loud for classwork and tests. This kind of accommodation can help while you work with the school to assess your child’s reading difficulties and find ways to address them using different teaching methods.
Trouble Understanding Math Phrases and Concepts
If your child still struggles when you read him word problems, he may be having trouble understanding the phrases in word problems that clue students in to what they need to do with numbers. Kids have to translate these phrases into what teachers refer to as “a number sentence.” Here’s an example of a word problem and the number sentence your child needs to come up with to solve it:
Word problem: “Sue has two pencils. She spends one hour at the store and buys three more pencils. How many pencils does Sue have in all?”
Number sentence: “2 + 3 = ____.”
Some kids can picture a number sentence like this one in their heads. Other kids need to write it down. Either way, there’s a lot your child has to think about before getting to the point where he can calculate that the answer is 5.
To translate a word problem into a number sentence, your child has to understand the language and concepts of math. He has to know that being asked “How many pencils in all?” means he needs to add together the two groups of pencils.
This is one reason why a child who can easily calculate 2 + 3 = 5 might struggle with a word problem that asks him to solve the same calculation.
How you can help: Ask the teacher to help you make index cards with phrases that are commonly used in word problems. For example, one index card might show “in all” next to the “+” sign. Another card might show “all together” next to the “+” sign.
When helping your child with math homework, encourage him to get into the habit of matching an index card to a phrase in each word problem.
You can also ask your child to close his eyes and try to picture what’s happening in the problem. Imagine the first group of pencils joining together with the second group and forming one large group. If he can’t picture this in his head, you can use toothpicks, coins or other small objects to form the two small groups and then combine them into one group.
Trouble Staying Focused and Controlling Impulses
If your child can read the word problems and explain how they should be solved, but still arrives at the wrong answers, the difficulty could involve attention or impulse control. These issues can lead to calculation errors even when kids know the math facts.
Children with attention issues can get distracted by the words or lose focus on the task at hand, which leads to confusion with the math. And children who are impulsive can be so hasty that they don’t notice key parts of the problem.
Another aspect of word problems that can trip kids up is extra information. Some details aren’t needed to solve the problem, such as Sue spending one hour in the store before she bought more pencils. Kids need to learn to weed out this information. How you can help: Ask your child to read through the problem once and then circle the important pieces of the word problem as he reads it again. This can help your child maintain focus and avoid making impulsive decisions.
You can also encourage him to use blank pieces of paper to cover all of the problems except the one he’s doing. Try using a checklist or other strategies to make sure your child double-checks his work, too.
After you’ve tried a few of these suggestions to get an idea of why your child is struggling, set up a meeting to discuss your concerns with his teachers. Together you can create a plan that will help him with word problems at school and at home.