Using keywords like “altogether,” “fewer,” and “total” as the only way to navigate word problems is not a good strategy to teach children for many reasons. The readings about research done with students with learning disabilities and the benefits of Singapore Math explained the biggest reason why using keywords is an ineffective strategy when learning math.
Research shows that depending on the wording of the problem, kids can misinterpret the necessary operation when solely using the keyword strategy in solving word problems. For example, in a problem like, “Mary had 3 more apples in her bucket than John. Together, they had 7 apples. How many apples did John have in his bucket?” the keyword strategy would provide the wrong answer. In using the keyword strategy, the word “more” would direct students to add the given numbers in the word problem. However, the process is not that simple and straightforward, and subtraction is the necessary operation. But even if the student subtracted 7-3 and arrived at 4, the answer is still incorrect because Mary didn’t have 3 apples, she had 3 more apples than John. In this instance, mapping the problem or drawing it out would be helpful in arriving at the answer.
Second, when kids use the keyword strategy, they can sometimes successfully arrive at the answer, but they often can’t explain why the answer is correct. The keyword strategy places emphasis on the product and not the process in math. Kids—especially those who have difficulty with reading comprehension—can memorize the keywords and what operation they stand for, but they won’t understand or be able to say why their answer is correct and sometimes, they won’t even understand what the question is asking or what their answer means. They lose transferable problem-solving skills.
Third, in real life when people must solve a word problem-like problem, people won’t often be given a written out question. Most of the time, people have to interpret and evaluate a set of numbers or images to find a solution. Kids will need to know how to set up their own math problems using their own language, and mapping the problem is a great way to prepare the students for that kind of thinking.
Teachers should work to teach math in a holistic way, in which the students have many tools to use in solving their problem. Using keywords is just one way students can work to solve word problems. Ultimately, when students can explain why 5 bags with 3 apples in each bag means there are 15 apples in all and how they know that—and not just by saying 5 x 3=15—then the teacher knows students learned.