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Ask HN: Mastering math word problems for upper elementary student
8 points by bahirjinaik 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 6 comments
Hi, my kid will be 5th grader this fall. One thing I have noticed consistently is the kid struggles to solve math word problems. The kid gets the problem when I explain but again struggles with a new problem for the same concept. Are there any techniques to improve this? Thanks

Lots of practice with lots of feedback on process.

Once you have walked them through a problem and shown them the process, have them implement that process. If they have cognitive breakdown, then engage in scaffolding (e.g., ask them what was done in a previous problem you did together).

Try to avoid just doing the problem for them over and over. Modeling is great at the start, but you have to have them implement the model on their own for them to learn.

This is a very brief answer to a problem that has a lot of nuanced issues. That said, it’s a start.

If you know a good teacher or tutor, ask to watch them work on this stuff. Some of these folks make it seem like magic (although it’s not).

Your child, I assume, can solve algebraic equations. He/she may need help translating the words into equations. You may want to check out the worksheets available here: https://kiddymath.com/worksheets/translating-problems-into-e...


In my experience parents get frustrated because their child doesn't get a concept, but don't automatically think that the child needs more practice. If they think about practice, it is not systematic or structured and doesn't generate enough information about what's confusing the kid.

Doing homework or exercises in the kitchen isn't enough, because how many exercises is the kid going to do? They won't do all the mistakes kids make and won't get enough corrections. The feedback loop is very wide, if it exists at all. The session drags forever.

I've had similar experience when a parent complains that a child is behind in say, addition. I'll take a sheet of paper, and make it into a table with horizontal and vertical lines to make cells. Say 8 by 8: that's 64 cells on an A4 sheet.

I'll then put 64 random additions in those cells and give it to the child. The child then starts making mistakes with "carrying" for example. I'll correct the mistake (check mark or cross and invite the child to re-solve it), and add an operation (so it's 64 + n_wrong_answers), and the child goes on to the next operation. They may make the same mistake and I'll correct again. Generally speaking, a couple of examples and they'll stop making that mistake because the frequency of the "cases" is high. They're doing one after the other, not a couple every week.

When they're done, I'll go over the cells and either notice a pattern like systematically forgetting to carry. I'll correct the cells and make another sheet of paper. This goes until the kid gets all of them right.

Paradoxically, doing it this way is faster: the session is more intense, there are more examples, the child is more focused, they get many, many exaples and correct their mistakes, and then they're done. This is different than the half-assed approach with a low intensity session that goes on forever.

One requirement is that it has to be crystal clear to the kid that they're going nowhere. I won't get upset and dismiss them when they start getting things wrong or just put random answers. They're doing it so they can go play because that tactic works with a lot of parents: they get impatient, and they'll dismiss the child who can then go play.

Even the kids that concentrate the least or are distracted the most get laser-focused, because it becomes clear to them they're not leaving until they get none of the operations wrong.

Just one session and the parents notice a dramatic improvement and it's not magic. It's 64 mini exercises that drill down a concept until a kid doesn't get it wrong. Some parents are impressed with the speed a child starts doing operations, even doing mental calculations of multi digit additions.

As far as I can tell, children lack practice. They're not solving enough problems. They'll do one homework exercise here, another there. Spend hours and hours doing the simplest things in the kitchen because they lack the incentive to get it done, and they know the parent is going to lose patience and dismiss them.

I got confused with your fourth and fifth paragraph. In the fourth one, you seem to be checking each operation after it's done by the child and adding another one if it's wrong.

In the fifth paragraph, it seems you let the child finish the entire sheet and then add another sheet of operations (with n amount of operations based on the number of failures or another 64?)

Could you clarify this further? Your method seems very interesting to me.

Thanks. I would try to take this approach.

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