One pattern I have observed in a number of students I have worked with is this – their ability to do arithmetic is not necessarily co-related to their ability to solve word problems. It’s remarkable how a student, who is more than equipped with his basic arithmetic skills such as multiplication and division, and can solve a problem presented formally, such as 6000 / 500 = 12, but is all at sea when presented with the problem:
Megan wants to fill a bucket with water. A bucket holds 6 litres. A jug holds 500 millilitres. How many jugs of water does Megan need to fill an empty bucket?
What exactly is going on here? Why is the student unable to make the link between the problem presented with the tools he already has at his disposal? Some of the common patterns I’ve observed so far are:
- The student tries to apply any technique that comes to his/her mind, without thinking through what exactly is being asked. When I ask the student why he/she chose an operation, more often than not, it turns out to be an “instinctive guess”
- The student wants to get to an answer as quickly as possible, and then check with me if he/she got it right. If not, he/she tries another strategy, and checks with me again – just trial and error, with not enough attention to the actual question, but focus on just getting “an” answer.
- The student is unable to understand the question, even after reading it multiple times.
While we can work with the first two scenarios mostly by reassuring the student that the process is more important than the answer, the third point is of particular interest to me: How good is a Maths intervention, when a child is still struggling with “Reading Comprehension” issues?
I recently learned that 92% of 11 to 14 year olds have a reading comprehension age of 8 or below. This figure is beyond shocking, and no wonder students struggle with Maths, or any subjects that require a good understanding of the problem being posed.
As an adult, the material that I find difficult to comprehend are the ones that I’m not yet familiar with. When I chose a new subject area, I take my time to warm up to the terminologies and common knowledge in the domain, and then the subject matter starts making sense to me. I may be being naive here, but I don’t see how that can be different for a child.
Are we missing a trick by providing dry word problems that they can’t relate to, and hence have trouble in comprehending them? In other words, do they really care if Megan fills the bucket or not? What would make them care? Perhaps examples that are relevant to their daily life? On another note, what if relevant examples are not enough by themselves? What if there was a way for them to experience or act on these examples? What if Maths is situated so well in the context, that it’s no longer “Maths as a practice”, but becomes “Maths as an experience“? Is this possible, or practical?
I dare say, Yes! If Rob is at the front with a bucket and a jug, and if Emily is trying to figure out how many trips Rob is going to make from the water tap to the bucket with his jug, she may actually care. She may actually do the Math. If you have jugs of different sizes, and challenge Rob to find the minimum number of trips he would need to fill the bucket up, he might join in the fun as well. And at the end of the exercise, you may not have to ask the students how many jugs would Megan have needed. They know.
Am I right in thinking the word problems we pose the children may not be suited for their reading comprehension abilities/interests? Are we asking them the right questions?