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For many students who struggle with mathematics, word problems are just a jumble of words and numbers.However, you can help students make sense of these problems by teaching them problem-solving processes.In other words, ELLs who have had formal education in their home countries generally do not have mathematical difficulties; hence, their struggles begin when they encounter word problems in a second language that they have not yet mastered (Bernardo, 2005).
Indeed, as students move forward in their mathematical learning, they will need to apply problem-solving processes to more and more complex situations so they become college and career ready.
The first Common Core State Standard (CCSS) for mathematical practice focuses specifically on problem solving: Proficient students are able to explain the meaning of a problem and look for entry points to its solution.
While key words are very important, they are only part of the process.
Understanding the language in word problems is critical for all students. But because words are often used differently and problems are set up differently, there are some cautionary messages.
Another good tool is to teach them to draw or model the problems. She is currently teaching 6th grade communication arts and math.
To illustrate the problem above, you could state: "Here's Maria's 24." Then, draw 24 units, figures, shapes, etc. "Here's Paolo's; he has more because Maria has fewer than he does". She has worked with ELLs at a beginners level as well as the intermediate level for the past 5 years.
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The student may immediately make the conclusion that the answer is 16, but that is not what the problem is asking, and the child would be wrong. What research has found is that if we ask students to only rely on knowing that certain key words signal specific operations, we can actually lead them away from trying to understand the problems. "The difference is between knowing the meaning of the words "fewer than" and using "fewer than" as a key to an operation.
They will tend to look only for those words and whatever numbers are in the problem, even if they are not relevant to the answer. We want students to know the meaning of the words, but also to see them in the context of the whole problem.