Complex Word Problems/Impact of Language, Attention, and Sequential Ordering

Reading a complex math problem is akin to problem solving itself, placing demands on a student’s language, attention, and sequential ordering skills.

A student’s ability to understand the language found in math word problems greatly influences his proficiency at solving problems. Students must incorporate semantic abilities (the knowledge of specific words and their meanings), an understanding of syntax (the effects of word order and meaning of sentences), and discourse skills (understanding language beyond the sentence level, as in textbook explanations, teacher instructions, or word problems).

Once a student understands the language of a problem, he must pull out the important details, disregard extraneous information, place the crucial information in the proper sequence, or order, etc. Only when a student is able to understand the situation to be solved will he be able to complete the problem solving process.

Here are some strategies to help students strengthen their understanding of complex word problems.

Helpful Hints

  • Be sure students are comfortable with one-step word problems (problems requiring only one operation) before working with multi-step word problems (problems with multiple components and operations).  
  • Focus specifically on the information provided in word problems. Have students separate the necessary information (numbers, labels, etc. needed to solve the problem) from the extra information (numbers, labels, and other details not needed for the solution).  
  • Teach students to read for meaning, rather than searching for key words, when trying to identify the operation to use for a math word problem. For example, a student who can read a problem and restate it in his own words to help him realize that he’s been asked to combine amounts or add, will have a deeper understanding than a student who looks only for a key word or phrase in the sentence (e.g., ‘total’, ‘how many’, etc.) to indicate what operation to use.  
  • Have students create new story problems, and reword existing problems in such a way that essential information remains the same, but is worded differently. Also, have students alter important information in a problem and talk about how the problem has been changed.  
  • Ask students to help you come up with topic ideas for word problems, e.g., situations related to sports, popular music groups or performers, your own school, etc. Students are more likely to be interested in topics that have relevance to their lives.  
  • Have students paraphrase word problems for each other. Create partner pairs where one student reads a word problem silently, then provides the necessary information to his partner so the partner can do the solution.  
  • Have students compare textbook word problems to real life situations. For example, a textbook math problem may read " Jill bought three CDs at $14.99 each. How much did she spend‘" In a real life situation, students would want to consider other factors, such as sales tax, customer discounts, etc.