The Underlining Problem with Solving Word Problems

August 23, 2018

Many elementary school math students view problem solving as the most difficult aspect of an already complicated subject.  Recognizing this, some teachers attempt to ease the burden on their students, directing them to underline key words when they encounter a word problem.  Although well-intentioned, this approach hinders students’ mathematical development.  The Underlining key words procedure contradicts the nature of problem solving, misleads students, and removes the activity’s joy.

Solving problems (word or otherwise) is not a linear, algorithmic pursuit.  It begins with collecting information and later organizing and analyzing it.  When teachers direct students to begin this process by identifying key words and underlining them, they are endorsing a systematic approach that discourages flexible thinking and creativity.  In the process, they are falsely implying that word problems can always be solved through a series of steps and procedures.  Directing students to first represent information pictorially is a superior pedagogical approach.  This method for solving word problems ensures that students acknowledge key words and numbers without the distraction of searching for terms that might magically provide answers. 

If Mathematics is a catalyst for intellectual development, then the subject should be taught and learned through thinking and reasoning.  Too often teachers encourage their students to relate terms such as Altogether and Difference to a mathematical operation.  Altogether, for example, triggers students to add, while Difference implies that they should subtract.  Although the aforementioned might help students solve some simple one-step word problems, using the same approach for complex, multi-step problems will often betray them, especially if none of the common terms appear in the problem.

The human mind is intrinsically drawn to problem solving.  As long as students have the reading and mathematical skills to solve the puzzles that they’re encountering, the challenges are desirable and children are likely to persist with alacrity.  However, when students feel confined to algorithmic procedures such as reading and then rereading while underlining key words, their natural inclination shifts from joyous fascination to indifference.  They come to view mathematical word problems as boring, lose the desire to persevere, and in turn, become worse problem solvers.

Procedural approaches to problem solving restricts students’ mathematical growth.  The pedagogical method not only works antithetically to problem solving, but it also leads to unnecessary errors, and takes the pleasure out of the activity.  When the mode of instruction shifts from algorithmic to experimental, challenges become desirable, frustration turns to curiosity, and problem solving time becomes a dynamic part of children’s math lessons.