Almost every elementary mathematics curriculum asks students to solve word problems like this: There are 5 flowers and 10 buckets. How many fewer flowers are there than buckets?
Research has shown that students with mathematics learning disabilities or those who consistently underperform in mathematics have a harder time with word problems than their peers. In particular, students have difficulty understanding the language in word problems (e.g., “how many fewer” in the problem above).
To address this, College of Education & Human Development Assistant Professor Elizabeth Stevens, Associate Professor Audrey Leroux and CEHD graduate students Megan Mowbray and Grace Lee conducted a study to determine if incorporating specific instruction in word-problem vocabulary could help students with mathematics difficulty successfully solve word problems.
For this study, 75 third graders with mathematics difficulty were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- Students attended school-provided mathematics intervention four times a week
- Students attended a 50-minute, researcher-provided virtual intervention in word-problem solving four times a week
- Students attended a 50-minute, researcher-provided virtual intervention in word-problem solving four times a week, with direct instruction on mathematics vocabulary words
For the third group, the research team selected 35 common mathematics word-problem solving vocabulary terms presented via vocabulary semantic maps that provided student-friendly definitions, visual illustrations and opportunities for students to practice applying the terms.
The school district changed from virtual to in-person learning two-thirds of the way through the study, which reduced how many lessons the research team could teach. However, the results from this study – published in Exceptional Children – showed that students who received word-problem intervention with the vocabulary lessons performed better than those who received word-problem intervention only or the school-provided intervention.
The findings also demonstrate that direct math vocabulary lessons can significantly improve students’ word problem vocabulary knowledge.
“Many teachers may not know how to provide mathematics-vocabulary instruction, may incorrectly teach key words or may ignore the language of mathematics all together,” Stevens said. “To our knowledge, this is the first randomized control trial intervention study examining the use of this vocabulary map routine to teach math vocabulary. The results are promising to suggest this is an effective way to improve students’ math vocabulary knowledge.”
Story by Claire Miller