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Tackling Word Problems in Maths

by Allan Wilson

on Thu Sep 14, 2017

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Many people can cope with basic arithmetic when a problem is presented as a sum to be calculated, but struggle when the question is wrapped up in words. Text to speech software can help with reading the words in a problem, but it won't necessarily make the question easier to understand, or to answer.

For example, a person with poor numeracy skills may be able to solve a simple problem like "12 - 4 = ?" from remembering basic facts of arithmetic, but will struggle if the same question is dressed up into a word problem like, "Mary bought twelve sweets in the corner shop, but on the way home four of them fell out of a hole in her bag. How many did she have left to share with her brother when she got home?"

A few iPad apps have been developed to attempt to model these word problems and turn them back into basic arithmetic. These include Math Word Problems from Happy Frog Apps, Math 4 Adults from Pop! Pop! LLC and Visual Math Word Problems from Math Expression, but the main focus in this blog is on the Thinking Blocks apps from Math Playground.

Thinking Blocks: Model and Solve Word Problems

There are four separate apps in the Thinking Blocks series:

Each of the apps uses the same technique of encouraging the learner to break the information provided down into the key parts to represent the 'known' information and the 'unknown' necessary to answer the question. Different styles of question can be modelled in each app, encouraging the learner to develop visual strategies that can be used in a range of word-based questions. I'll work through a problem in the Multiplication and Division Practice app to illustrate the approach, which is based on bar modelling techniques used in "Singapore Maths".

When you tap on Start Modelling you are presented with the first question to model. The question is posed in a light purple box at the top of the screen, with instructions provided at the bottom of the screen. Unfortunately, for UK users, many of the questions are set using US measures, currency, etc. rather than metric measures and £-signs that learners are familiar with. This is not a major issue as long as people focus on the numbers - there won't be a need to convert from feet to inches, etc. half way through solving a problem.

Thinking Blocks screenshot

The top line represents the total weight of the bags, i.e. the answer to the question, while the bottom line represents the weight of one bag. Drag the labels to the appropriate line.

Thinking Blocks screenshot

Now add eight orange blocks, each representing a bag of raspberries, to the bar. The solution to the initial problem is now taking shape, with eight bags needed to match the line representing the total weight.

Screenshot from Thinking Blocks

Drag the blocks with the number 12 and the ? from the right to represent the weight of one bag and the unknown total that you want to calculate. It is now easier to visualise the solution as 8 (number of bags) x 12 (weight of 1 bag)

Screenshot from Thinking Blocks

When you are ready to do the calculation to work out the answer to the problem, a number pad for typing your answer will appear to the right of the screen, with an option to show a calculator at the bottom of the screen to perform the calculation. Like most calculators, it only shows one number at a time in the display. I would prefer an extended display that showed "8 x 12 =".

Screenshot from Thinking Blocks

Once you have done the calculation, use the yellow number pad to type in your answer and press the "Check" button to make sure your answer is correct.

Finding a solution to your own problem

Each of the seven modelling options on the home page of the Thinking Blocks apps has five problems to model, so there are lots of opportunities to practice and develop skills for converting a word problem into the number problem that lies behind it. Unfortunately, the Thinking Blocks apps don't provide a blank framework into which you can put your own question. You can model the problem with pencil and paper, using the techniques used by the app, or use an alternative app, such as Pages, that allows you to manipulate text and simple blocks on screen.

Screenshot from Pages

 

Latest News!

I've been in touch with Colleen King, who designed the Thinking Blocks apps, to ask if they were to be updated for iOS 11. She has got back to me to say that a new cross-platform HTML5 version, combining the apps into one will be made available from the Math Playground web site from 18th September. This will include text-to-speech support, visual supports and improved modelling.

 

 

Some example text - should be descriptive and fit 2 lines (not Screenshot from Thinking Blocks

Tags: maths, dyscalculia, app

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