We’ve talked about word problems in math before – specifically, how students shy away from more abstract equations and number sentences, and favor narrative problems, if they’re given the choice. Here’s a new strategy for making word problems even more concrete:
Have students act them out.
In a study discussed by KQED’s MindShift, third graders were grouped and instructed to either act out or simply read a word problem about feeding fish to zoo animals. The group that acted out the problem was less likely to miss a niggly little word like “each,” and solve the problem correctly.
The article goes on to talk about the importance of movement to learning. It starts in infancy, when babies require freedom to gain control of their heads, to sit up, and to crawl and walk, and to practice mastery of their bodies as they learn and explore. Then, we witness the inclination to learn physically, in preschoolers who want to touch everything. As kids gain the ability to self-regulate and control their movements, we begin to demand it of them. Sitting still and keeping our hands to ourselves are part of growth, but perhaps there are ways to welcome physical learning into the classroom in a regulated way. For starters, young children have strong associations between numbers and counting on their fingers, but I’ve met at least one teacher who urged students to abandon finger-counting for the sake of mental math. While it’s an understandable goal, if a student doesn’t have a solid grasp of numeracy yet, why not invite him to use every available tool to gain mastery?
The value of acting out word problems is especially clear for English Learners. It obviously reinforces content learning, but is also an opportunity to fortify the language of math. Words like “each” from the zoo problem in the article, or phrases like, “equal amounts,” or concepts like surface area, which could be traced out on the ground, stop representing gaps in student learning, and start holding meaning.
How do you manage the wiggle worms in your classroom? Have you ever tried to act out word problems?