There is a common saying among teachers, that you must learn how to “beg, borrow, and steal” to be able to find the best resources and practices for your classroom.  Today I am going to tell you to steal…some strategies from the reading and language arts teacher down the hall to help your students in math!

I love working with students in small group because the conversations you have with them really open your mind to their perception of understanding when it comes to problem solving.  I work with fifth and sixth graders at a high at risk campus.  Many of the students are second language learners or just lack the prior knowledge that helps so much with understanding complex word problems.  A small group focus is often modeling and teaching students to move through problem solving in an efficient and meaningful way.  If you teach, you already know…this is hard work!

Here is an example of a problem and the conversations my students and I have had while problem solving.

Me:  “What is happening in this situation?”
Student: “Subtraction.”
Me: “No, I mean in the story, what’s happening?”
Student: “Addition???”

Me: “I don’t mean what operation you might do to solve the problem, I mean what is going on in the problem?”

Student: “Multiplication!”
Then I realize that my head is starting to hurt and I want to hide under the small group table.

That was once upon a time, but now I have a different method to use while modeling problem solving with “story problems”… and I stole it… from the language arts department!  Here it is…

Close Reading for Story Problems

This strategy is based on a few ideas I have seen my fellow teachers do with students in their reading groups with their English language arts classrooms.

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Step One: Help students determine which type of problem this strategy works best for.

Ask students to decide whether their math problem is a “math problem or a “story problem.”  Explain that a math problem is one where the problem tells you exactly what to do, while a story problem was a situation that is like a short story.  Story problems will often involve people that are doing something and, although it is very short, it has a beginning, middle, and an end, just like a story they might analyze in reading class.  A multi-step problem is really just a super short, super boring story!

Step Two: Read the problem like a story.

When we have determined that we have a story problem, our next step is to read it carefully.  We read it once, fluently, from start to finish.  Once we have read the whole problem, ask the students what happened first, what happened after that, and so on.  This helps the students to slow down and stop jumping to conclusions about what to do when solving the problem.  Also make sure to visualize the problem.  This can be done by sketching quick pictures and diagrams or mentally.  This time will also help you to determine if there are students who are unable to solve the problem because they have no concept for what is happening in the problem.  This can happen with students are second language learners of English or do not have a large prior knowledge set.

Step Three: Differentiate between details and inferences.

Many students do not transfer their learning well between one discipline and another.  Although students learn about details and inferences in language arts class, and about observations and inferences in the science classroom, they cannot always automatically apply that in the math classroom.  They need to be able to, though, to be effective problem solvers.  In math we call the details or observations the “givens”.  Ask your students to summarize the givens in the problem without making any inferences at first.  This will serve as a checklist while problem solving to make sure they stay on track and complete the entire problem.

After listing the givens, start making inferences.  You should make make sure the students understand that these inferences did not come from the problem, but rather from their interpretation and analysis of the problem.  Why is this so important?  Many students enter the upper grades with a “keyword” understanding of problem solving.  They think that there are certain words that will always signal certain operations.  For example, every time they see the word “total” they think they must add or every time they see the word “difference” or “less than” they should subtract.  In reality there are no “keywords” that will always tell us what operation to do.  Depending on how the words are used in the problem could completely change the way they need to be interpreted.  You don’t want your students to rely on keywords, you want them to rely on their understanding of the specific problem.

Step Four: Use the inferences to solve the problem.

The students’ ability to make good inferences is the real key to creating good problem solving.  Inferences that are based on a strong list of given information from the problem, will be a good base to the students work.  Some great ways for students to express their inferences in a math setting are writing expressions and equations, using strip diagrams and bar models to evaluate problems, or creating an organized list of steps for problems solving.

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