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Vol. 10 #4 Beyond Key Words: The Use of Schemas to Solve Word Problems and Promote Conceptual Unders

Beyond Key Words: The Use of Schemas to Solve Word Problems and Promote Conceptual Understanding

Joan Gujarati, Ed.D.

Walk into any elementary school classroom during mathematics instruction and chances are that you will see students presented with some type of word or story problem to solve given the importance of problem-solving in today’s mathematics classrooms (CCSSO, 2010; NCTM, 2014). Not only do computational strategies come into play when solving a word problem, but so do reading comprehension strategies. In many instances, students are instructed to rely on a key word approach to solve a problem where “all,” “altogether,” or “combined” suggest addition; “left” indicates subtraction; “times” suggests multiplication; and “share” indicates division. However, since there are frequent exceptions to these “rules”, students only scanning for key words often miss out on a deeper understanding of the problem. Key words may reinforce procedural fluency in early years, but hinder conceptual understanding (Clement & Bernhard, 2005). For example, in the problem “Pablo took the 15 pieces of candy that he was not going to eat and gave them to Susanna. Now, Pablo has 27 pieces of candy left. How many pieces of candy did Pablo have to begin with?” Relying solely on the key word approach, students may focus on the word “left” and decide to subtract where the operation required is really addition.