As a classroom teacher, I taught many children that could add, subtract, multiply and divide with ease.  But, the minute you place a word problem in front of them…they FREEZE.  “This isn’t MATH!  This is READING!  I don’t like READING!”  Ahhhhh…when it was time to teach the word problem chapters in the math textbook, I have to be honest here, I had to PRETEND that it was my FAVORITE math topic of ALL TIME!  Truth be told, I struggled with math word problems as a student…UNTIL I was told to ILLUSTRATE what was happening in the problem.  That is what we are going to explore in this blog.  Word problems are often called STORY problems and with good reason.  They really are mini-stories and if kids are taught to look at them this way, to picture what is happening, and illustrate it, they may have more success at figuring them out.  

Why Use Illustrations?  

When kids listen to a word problem, they make a mental picture of what is happening in their minds.  Then, they should read or listen to the story again and illustrate what they visualize.  This makes the math concept more concrete.  The act of drawing the major elements of the word problem creates a visual cue that can be easier for the kids to understand than just words on paper alone.  For example, if the problem asks, “Tina had 10 cookies and she shared them with her friend.  How many cookies did each person get?”  The child can draw a simple stick figure for Tina and another one for her friend, then give each child a cookie until 10 cookies are drawn in total.  They will soon discover that each child will get 5 cookies.  You can then show your child that this is a division problem:  10 divided by 2 equals 5.  When students use illustrations to help them dissect and solve math problems, they internalize the process.  Eventually, kids will begin visualizing the “story” of the problem in their heads and may not need to actually draw it out on paper.  This is a skill that will help them for many years to come! 

Not Just Stick Figures

What’s awesome about math illustrations is that it is not limited to things like stick figures, tally marks, or other written symbols on paper.  Kids can also use manipulatives such as cubes, actual coins, toothpicks, and candy (I’m thinking M & M’s or Dots) just to name a few, to solve more complex problems.  We need to help eliminate the fear factor when it comes to solving math word problems.  Giving them fun tools such as these will help them look forward to trying to figure these problems out.  

In closing, we need to help our kids truly understand and eventually enjoy math word problems because they are just part of daily life.  By helping them visualize what the problem is asking and allowing them to manipulate objects to help them solve, we encourage them to take chances, test their theories, and build their math confidence.