Why are word problems so hard?

Before going any further, I have no answer for the question posed in the post title. If you have good research on this subject please share.

 

My students really have gone above and beyond my expectations for our unit on systems of linear equations and inequalities, but there is still so much struggle happening, and not all of it is productive.

We worked on systems of inequalities and linear programming for about four days this past week and based on their quizzes the students procedurally understand how to solve these problems. But when I gave them their assessments on Friday there was someĀ serious struggle.

The assessments were word problem heavy. I allowed students to do this open note so they could view the word problems we’d been working on all unit and hopefully use them as a guide. The majority of my students did not finish this assessment in the time allotted, and as they were turning them in I saw a lot of mistakes. I’m going to provide feedback on them and allow them to fix/finish on Monday before I grade them and hopefully that will help, but I’m still not pleased with it.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>So many tiny misconceptions about expressions and equations that I wasn't tuned into until now.</p>&mdash; Kent Haines (@KentHaines) <a href=”https://twitter.com/KentHaines/status/804415131006353408″>December 1, 2016</a></blockquote>
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I’ve been following more and more elementary and middle school math people on Twitter trying to understand where these ideas and issues come from. Kent Haines, above, is seeing similar struggles with expressions in his middle school math classes that I am still seeing with juniors in my AFDA class. These teachers have helped give me ideas for supports and different types of lessons but I haven’t found answers. I teach a lot of students with special needs; more than a third of my AFDA class has some sort of educational plan in place. But even my non-diagnosed students struggle with word problems. Even my readers, the students who love and excel in English, struggle with word problems. WHAT GIVES?!?

This might be what finally kicks me into a master’s degree, or at least into reading more educational research. I need to understand. I don’t understand what it is about word problems that seems to cause everyone, even students with at- or above-grade-level reading levels, to suddenly lose math focus and ability and I want to.

P.S. I don’t really want to be a special educator (shout-out to them; good special educators are the hardest working and best teachers I know) but I honestly hope that I never stop teaching collaborative classes. These kids teach me more than they’ll ever know.