This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in December 2011.
If we ask our elementary students how they determine which words are important words in content area text, what would they say? Chances are some of our children would say words in bold print or italics are important. Others might go by the length of words. Long, technical words that they hadn’t seen before might also be words they would choose.
Those strategies for identifying important words might work for science and social studies text, but they don’t work with all content text. Math is one example that doesn’t always play by the rules. With math word problems, we must help students recognize important words that normally they might not even notice in text. Small words such as from
might be skimmed over, but they can be important words when looking at word problems.
We need to work with children to help them take a closer look at word problems. Step by Step
Arrange the students’ desks so all of the students are in one of four small groups. On a white board, draw a large rectangle with a circle in the middle. Then draw a horizontal line and a vertical line dividing the rectangle in four equal parts. It should look like this:
Review with the students the mathematical operations they have learned so far. Ask the class which type of math problems they learned to solve first. Then put a small addition sign in the top right box. Then discuss which mathematical problems they learned to solve next. Going counterclockwise, write a small subtraction sign in the square at the top left. Continue on putting a multiplication and division symbol in the two remaining boxes. In the circle in the center of the square, draw an equal sign.
Each group will focus on addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. After the students know which type of math problems their group is assigned, give each group an envelope containing an assortment of word problems which require their assigned mathematical operation. These word problems might be ones created during the year by classmates or published examples. (Ideally the problems will be printed on individual pieces of paper, so students can highlight the important words.) The goal for each group is to work together to read the word problems and identify any important words which might help the reader to identify the operation required. Ask each group to highlight the important words they found in their problems.
Now it is time for students to get feedback from peers. The group looking at addition problems will exchange their envelope of word problems with the subtraction group. The multiplication and division groups can also exchange their envelopes of word problems. Each of the groups should examine the word problems they received to determine if there are any additional important words that might need to be highlighted. If there are additional words, they can be highlighted. Then the envelopes are returned to the original group which was assigned the mathematical operation.
At this time have each student take a sheet of paper and fold it into four equal squares. Then they can draw a circle in the center so that their sheet resembles the rectangle shown on the white board. This will serve as the student’s individual sheet.
It is time for the students in each group to share the important words they found in their word problems which alerted them to their assigned mathematical operation.
As the teacher writes the words shared on a white board, the class can write on their own individual sheets of paper. As ideas are shared, be sure to discuss how the important words in math differ from important words in other content areas. Often the important words in math word problems can be easily overlooked. They don’t draw attention to themselves through bold print or italics, and they aren’t necessarily large words. Often they are words students would see in other text and skim right over. However, in word problems, they must be noticed. Math word problems must be closely read.
After the four groups have shared the important words they found, ask all of the students to glance one last time at their word problems to see if there are any important words that mean equal. Those words can be circled in the word problems and then shared with the class. As the teacher writes the words in the center circle on the white board, students can write them in the center circle on the individual sheets. Additional Ideas
Allow students to keep their individual sheets of paper or place the sheets in their math notebook. That way they can continue to add words on to the sheets as they encounter more word problems during the year. It might even be desirable to print a large copy of the ideas on the white board to put on the wall as a form of local text. This not only familiarizes children with the terms, but it also serves as a basic copy should their copy be lost.
Teachers working with very young children can modify the activity by dividing the paper into two parts so students can focus on only addition and subtraction. The class can also complete the sheet as a whole class activity. This activity also helps students to realize that important words aren’t always the ones that stand out to the reader. Small words such as more
, take away
, and others can be very important in solving word problems. Let’s Extend the Activity
Students might also use some of the words on the sheets to create math word problems for other students to solve. This not only helps with writing skills, but it gives them additional practice with math word problems. Jennifer L. Altieri, Ph.D. is the Literacy Division Coordinator at The Citadel in Charleston, SC. She has worked as a reading consultant with elementary and middle schools in St. Louis, Missouri, and an elementary school in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her interests include sharing multiethnic literature, creating poetry with young children, and developing disciplinary literacy skills.
Jennifer recently released her newest book, CONTENT COUNTS! DEVELOPING DISCIPLINARY LITERACY SKILLS K-6.
© 2012 Jennifer Altieri. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Reviews of K-12 Books with Mathematical Perspectives Engage: Teaching Tips