Why Developing Reading Skills May Help Your Child's Fear of Math Word Problems - Student Resources

Why Developing Reading Skills May Help Your Child’s Fear of Math Word Problems

Child Reading

Can you solve this word problem?

A pen and a pencil cost one dollar and twenty cents in total. The pen costs one dollar more than the pencil. How much does the pencil cost?

The answer is 10 cents. Did you get it right?

If you broke out in a cold sweat at the mere suggestion of having to solve this, you’re not alone. There is little that kids dread more than word problems. Even the strongest math students can struggle when it comes to solving these puzzles. But did you know that having difficulty solving word problems often indicates gaps in reading ability, rather than a deficiency in math?

When solving a word problem, we must:

  1. Read the question
  2. Figure out what the question is asking
  3. Then perform whatever mathematical operation is necessary to solve it

That’s a lot to worry about, and the actual math part doesn’t come until the very end.

Let’s return to the word problem we started with. Did you answer 20 cents? That’s no surprise! When reading the question quickly, we conclude that all we must do is add 1 dollar to 20 cents. Yet, the question specifies that the pen costs a full dollar more than the pencil. If the pencil cost 20 cents and the pen cost 1 dollar, the difference between the two is only 80 cents. Thus, the correct answer is 10 cents. If the pencil cost 10 cents, and the pen cost 1 dollar more ($1.10,) the total cost is $1.20.

$.10 + $1.10 = $1.20

The arithmetic in the word problem isn’t particularly difficult. Understanding the question is. Without strong reading skills, we would be unable to solve this – or any – word problem.

Beyond Word Problems

Word problems aren’t the only area of math where reading ability helps. Researchers are increasingly finding a connection between reading and math skills across the board. To understand this, consider the following factors.

Math vocabulary is very specialized. Take the word division, for example. In everyday speech division has many different definitions, but in math it is simply “the opposite operation of multiplication.” However, if a student only understands division to mean “something that separates,” it could cause confusion in math class.

School instruction requires that students understand written directions and explanations. Literacy skills are important for understanding everything from what the teacher writes on the board, to what the instructions mean on a worksheet. Students may struggle in math class simply because they have difficulty reading directions.

The very processes that help students become strong readers are just as important in math. Studies have shown that phonological processing, for example, is a key factor in math success.

Students who regularly read for pleasure had almost a 10% advantage in their math skills. This was shown in a study conducted by the Institute of Education at London University. The study’s author argues that “strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information.” This ability can help in any subject, including math.

Clearly, the connection between reading comprehension and math skills is significant. Developing reading ability will benefit your child far beyond English class. Discover tips that will encourage your child to develop a love of reading and enhanced comprehension. With a solid foundation in reading ability your child will be on the path to success in math and beyond.