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Grammar Matters: how grammar can help children to solve math word problems

With the ominous Common Core math tests just a few days away in New York and other states, educators have begun to intensify their efforts to help students to solve “word problems–the bane of students and teachers alike. For the last several years, declining test scores have been blamed on these types of problems because they require reasoning as well as arithmetical skill. Why are “word problems” so disconcerting? To put it simply: the problem with “word problems” is the words.

Students with poor reading skills–but sometimes competent math skills– inevitably have great difficulty with “word problems” because they cannot decode the syntax in which the problems are presented. Here’s where grammar (the study of the order and function of words and word groups in sentences) can come to the rescue. For the key question in reading comprehension and, therefore, in analyzing and interpreting math word problems is “What is the sentence saying?” Indeed, both confusion and comprehension begin on the sentence level. Students unfamiliar with the parts of speech and their relationships within sentences will struggle with complex sentence structure and use most of their time and working memory trying to figure out what the sentence is saying instead of seeking to solve the problem itself. By the time they get to the end of the words in the problem, they might still have very little idea about the solutions they are being asked to find and the methodology they are being asked to employ.

Wouldn’t it be a great idea, then, for all schools to teach grammar systematically and sequentially from kindergarten through high school? Grammatical analysis would help students in every subject, for all subjects require reading. Reading comprehension begins with sentence comprehension, and to understand the whole sentence, students must learn to analyze its parts. Students must know what the words mean and how the words have been arranged to create meaning. This is why the parts of speech are so important. They are integral to understanding each sentence and how each sentence is related to other sentences in larger units such as paragraphs and essays. Put simply, if students do not understand the parts, how can we expect them to understand the whole of anything–including math? “Word problems” would no longer be a problem if students understood the words in the problem.