5 Strategies to Help Children Become Successful Word Problem Solvers

Your son or daughter has word problems for science homework. How do you help your children become successful word problem solvers? Help your child by developing a process that he can apply to a variety of problems. Recognize that effectively completing word problems requires a series of logical steps. The first strategy is to understand the language content of the problem. The second is recognizing that a science word problem is an application of algebra. Third, the values described in the problem are interconnected. Fourth, determine the appropriate algebraic equation for the problem. Finally, document the entire problem solving process.

1.  Successfully completing science word problems requires good reading comprehension skills. Word problem solvers cannot effectively complete the word problem without understanding the problem itself. What information in the problem is important to solving an equation? What information can be discarded? Distance, time and speed are important quantities that would be listed in a problem about a car’s speed. The color of the car would have no impact in solving the problem.

2.  Word problems in science are applications of algebraic expressions, or equations. Good word problem solvers distinguish between the givens in the problem and the value which is to be calculated. The givens always include both numbers and units. The value to be calculated only has a unit. The unit describes the measurement involved.

3.  Successful science word problem solvers see how the mathematical expressions in the statements are interconnected to each other. How would such a problem solver complete this example?

Sam drives her green car at 40 kilometers per hour. How far will she travel in 2 hours?

A good strategy to use is to first look for numbers combined with science-related terminology describing measurements, or what is given, or known, in the problem. Speed can be measured in kilometers per hour. Time can be measured in hours. The phrases, 40 kilometers per hour and 2 hours, are given, or are the known quantities, in the example. The speed and the time are interconnected. Speed is a ratio of distance and time. The word problem will also include a value without a number, or the unknown. The phrases “How many” or “How much” or “What is” are good clues to this value. The unknown quantity is distance, distinguished by the phrase, “how far”.

The color of her car, green, is irrelevant to solving the problem.

4.  Successful problem solvers determine the appropriate algebraic expression, or equation, for the problem. The appropriate equation to use for the example is: distance equals speed multiplied by time, or mathematically, d = speed * t. Now the problem is mathematical in nature. By substituting 40 kilometers per hour for speed and 2 hours for time, the problem solver gets an answer of 80 kilometers. Note that the answer includes both a number and a unit. Sometimes the equation needs to be rewritten by applying algebraic rules, so the unknown quantity is on one side of the equals sign all by itself.

5.  Successful problem solvers document their thinking process by writing out each step that he uses to solve the problem. The example above is rather basic, which most students can discover without writing out their work. Science word problems are also applications of science content. With more challenging science content, the corresponding word problems may, at first, seem too difficult. Breaking down the problem into simpler steps, which includes writing out the mathematical work, often helps create success. By writing down each given, unknown, equation, mathematical step, and answer, more challenging science word problems are less difficult. By first applying the problem solving process to basic problems, the successful problem solver will soon develop a method to apply to more difficult science word problems.

You can help your children develop a successful process that they can use to solve science word problems and become effective word problem solvers. First, understand the problem’s language content. Second, recognize that science word problems are applications of algebra. Third, the quantities used in problems are interconnected. Fourth, decide upon the appropriate algebraic equation to solve each problem. Finally, document the problem solving process.

Lorie Moffat has 20 years of teaching experience in both public school classroom and science museum settings. Contact her about special summer online tutoring packages.

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