Confused by worded problems?

Whilst taking part in a professional development course run by NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics) recently, we were asked this question:

Laura had $240. She spent 5/8 of it. How much money did she have left?

When asked this type of question, 78% of children in Singapore got the answer correct whilst only 25% of children in the United States did. We were intrigued, how does teaching differ in Singapore to produce this result?

One suggestion is the representation used by the children which enabled them to access the mathematics within the worded problem.

Around the table we nodded and mumbled about worded problems, something that always seems to be a stumbling block for many children (and adults). There is always something which tricks you and stops you from getting at the actual calculation you have to do.

So what was the key? In Singapore children are taught to use the Singapore Bar Method for representing worded problems before performing the calculation.

This example would show two bars, the first representing 240 dollars then the second smaller bar representing 5/8 beneath it.

This representation aids children in seeing that the answer must be less than 240 dollars; it doesn’t help with the actual working out but helps them see the calculation hidden within the words.

In a 2011 Ofsted report on good practice in primary mathematics an example of using the Singapore Bar Method is highlighted as an example of using a visual representation to aid conceptual understanding.

This method is taught consistently in schools in Singapore. Could this method work in the UK? Is it the key to unlocking worded problems? In the UK we tend to have many different ways of approaching word problems and have various concrete representations for example: numicom, Cuisenaire Rods, base ten apparatus, place value counters. Does this confuse children or is it offering each child a way that suits them best?

Does anyone have any experience of using the Singapore bar method? Has any school adopted any one representation for teaching calculation across year groups and if so have you seen a difference?

Take a look at the Primary Resources Group where I have put together some resources on worded problems including further information and resources using the Singapore Bar Method.

Please post a reply with any comments or further links.

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