story by Claire Miller
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Stevens has received two grants to support her research on mathematics vocabulary instruction and word-problem solving.
Georgia State University’s Center for Research on the Challenges of Acquiring Language Literacy awarded Stevens a $35,642 seed grant for a project entitled, “Using vocabulary instruction to improve change word-problem solving for students with mathematics difficulty.”
Teachers often encourage students to solve mathematics word problems by identifying key words, such as “more” or “less,” and using those words to determine how to solve the problem. But this method can lead to inaccurate calculations.
"The use of keywords is ineffective because students tie operations to key words (e.g., more means you should add) without considering the whole problem," Stevens explained. "For example, consider the following problem: 7 birds were in the tree and 4 flew away. Then 2 more flew away. How many birds are left in the tree? In the keyword approach, students might see the word ‘more’ and add 7 + 4 + 2 without recognizing this is a change decrease problem, and the correct equation is 7 – 4 – 2."
To improve students’ word-problem solving, Stevens will use the seed grant funding to create and implement vocabulary lessons on important word-problem terms and phrases. These lessons, which will take place in small groups, will help third grade students review a word problem, accurately determine what the problem is asking them to do, and solve it.
Similarly, the second grant Stevens received – a $17,000 grant from Georgia State’s Cleon C. Arrington Research Initiation Grant Program – will also support her work developing math vocabulary instruction for small-group lessons.
However, this second grant will specifically focus on word problems that ask students to compare two quantities, also known as difference word problems (e.g., Pablo has 12 pencils and Leah has 7. How many more pencils does Pablo have than Leah?).
Each grant project will impact up to 90 Atlanta-area third grade students and give Stevens the opportunity to study how these small-group lessons can help students struggling with mathematics.
“Current word-problem interventions do not explicitly teach students how to better understand the language and vocabulary in word problems,” Stevens said. “We hope this grant work will allow us to improve students’ word-problem solving and math vocabulary understanding.”