Word problems help you apply the skills that you have learnt while doing repeated computation. The beauty of math word problems lies in how many different ways a simple problem can be worded. Let us take the computational problem 34 – 12, for example. All of the following word problems are based on this simple subtraction problem.
- Mike has 34 baseball cards. He gives away 12 to his best friend, Arthur. How many does he have left?
- Liz scored 12 points less than Beth who scored 34 points. What did Liz score?
- Beth scored 34 points, which was 12 more than what Liz scored. What was Liz’s score?
You may be able to solve 34 – 12 in a fraction of a second. However, what good is it if you can’t answer any of the above three questions. Word problems build strong reading, thinking, and analytical skills as well as computational skills.
Understand what the question is about
Pay attention to the keywords. At the same time, you don’t blindly associate a keyword with an operation. For example, it’s easy to assume that you could relate “less than” to subtraction and “more than” to addition. However, in Question 3, you can see the keywords “more than” but the operation to be used is actually subtraction.
Another essential strategy is to be mindful of the keywords and how they are used to apply the right operation. To do that, you have to understand the relationship between the numbers in the problem.
Would this happen in real life?
One inherent problem with math word problems is that there are some underlying assumptions that sometimes may seem absurd. Take these problems for example:
1. “Dan runs 20 miles in 3 and a half hours. How long will he take to run 100 miles?”
2. “If 4 handymen repair 8 garages in 30 minutes, how many garages in all will they be able to repair in 5 hours?”
The implicit assumptions in the first problem are:
1. Dan can run 100 miles.
2. Dan will run the next 80 miles at the same pace.
The implicit assumptions in the second problem are:
1. All 4 handymen repair at the same rate.
2. All of them continue repairing without taking any breaks.
3. The time to travel from one garage to another is negligible.
All of these seem absurd and unrealistic. However, without these assumptions, the above problems will prove to be extremely complicated and will become almost impossible to solve. You are expected to ignore these and solve the problems. It makes sense to do so, as it helps you apply what you have learned in situations that resemble what you see in your day-to-day life.
Spot the red herrings
Sometimes, word problems have extraneous information that you should ignore. Let us look at an example.
1. Matthew takes the bus to school every day. The bus ride takes 20 minutes. To take the bus he has to walk for 5 minutes from his home. If he goes to school 5 days a week, how much time does he spend on the bus?
In this problem, you are given 3 different numbers, each of which gives you some information about Matthew’s trip to school. What you are asked to find is the total time that he spends on the bus in a week. Pay close attention and you will see that the time he spends on walking from home to the bus stop is irrelevant. The extra information is given just to misdirect you, to make sure you pay close attention and you understand the information given and what you have to determine to solve the problem.
The power of word problems
As you can see, word problems, in fact, help you with reading, thinking, and analysis, in addition to computation. When looking for a Math enrichment program, try to find a program that emphasizes this particular skill and make it count.
Is your child reaping the benefits of solving math word problems?