Throw Away the ‘Key’ Words in Math

Have you heard of teaching math with key words? Does it really work for solving all math problems? Are key words locking the door to students understanding of mathematical problems?

Below you will see a chart with some of the key words and the operations to use for each key phrase.

get a clue

When I first started my teaching career I used to use key words, which may not have been the best strategy to use with my students. Key words in math may work for early elementary grades because the word problems are not as complex, but as students continue their school years the problems will become more complex.  I no longer teach key words because I believe it causes students to look for patterns incorrectly.

The purpose of word problems is to help students think critically in order to solve situations in a manner which makes sense to them. The great thing about math is that students can use different strategies and get the same end result. Each student’s brain thinks differently and uses patterns to make it easier to store information. That’s why I think if we teach key words, the student’s brain will learn to look for key words without reading the entire problem and look for numbers to perform whatever operation they have learned for a particular key word. It is very important that a student read the entire problem, focus on the question, and a strategy to solve the problem based upon the child’s creative way of thinking and solving.

Let’s take the following word problem as an example of the different ways a student can solve a problem.

There are 4 more boys than girls in the class. There are 12 boys in the class. How many girls are in the class?

If we look for key words in this problem we see the word more, so a student may add 12 and 4 and get an answer of 16, which is incorrect.

Now solve the problem by using the six steps below, I tell my students to use in class.

  1. Restate the question, leaving a blank for the answer.
  2. Look for key information to answer the question. (notice it says key information, not key words..this is a big difference)
  3. Draw a picture, model, chart or any other organizer to help solve the problem.
  4. Write an equation or equations for your picture(s).
  5. Go back to step 1 and fill in the answer on the blank.
  6. Explain your thinking. Why did you solve the problem the way you chose.

six steps

If I follow the above steps for the problem:

There are 4 more boys than girls in the class. There are 12 boys in the class. How many girls are in the class?

Step 1: Restate the question, how many girls are in the class?

There are _______ girls in the class.

Step 2: Look for key information. This can be done by underlining, circling, highlighting, or rewriting the most important information needed in order to answer the question.

There are 4 more boys than girls in the class. There are 12 boys in the class. How many girls are in the class?

Step 3: Draw a picture, model, chart.

pic

Step 4: Write an equation or equations for the picture.

12 – 4 = 8 girls

or

The number of girls + 4 = 12  (Students can count on to find the number of girls for this equation.

Step 5: Insert the answer in the blank.

There are 8 girls in the class.

Step 6: Explain your thinking. Why did you do what you did?

Since I know the total number of boys in the class and the problem stated there are 4 more boys than girls, I subtracted four of the boys from the total number of boys to figure out the total number of girls in the class.

If students, follow the above six steps for word problems, the chances of them making a careless mistake will decrease. I have noticed a difference with my students using the six steps.

2 thoughts on “Throw Away the ‘Key’ Words in Math

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