Visualizing Word Problems with Bar Model Diagrams

A friend emailed me, frustrated with her child’s math lesson on bar diagrams: “Why do they have to make it so complicated? Why can’t we just solve the blasted problem?”

I told her bar models themselves are not the goal. The real question for parents and teachers is:

  • What can you do when your child is stumped by a math word problem?

To solve word problems, students must be able to read and understand what is written. They need to visualize this information in a way that will help them translate it into a mathematical expression.

visualizing-word-problems

Bar model diagrams are one very useful tool to aid this visualization. These pictures model the word problem in a way that makes the solution appear almost like magic.

It is a trick well worth learning, no matter which math program you use.

Visualization

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKsYDzQK8Zw

“Visualization is the brain’s ability to see beyond what the eyes can see, and we can develop visualization in many ways.”

The Bar Model Explained

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6Ipio8JntU

“A bar model is a way to represent a situation in a word problem using diagrams — in particular, using rectangles.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7LAHc1qvig

“This is one of the ideas that children learn in mathematics: the use of diagrams to represent quantities, especially quantities which are unknown.”

Word Problems from Literature

I’ve written a series of blog posts that explain bar model diagrams from the most basic through to solving multistep word problems. Check them out:

I’ve started working on a book about bar model diagrams, and I’d love to hear your input. Have you tried using them? Do they help your children? What questions do you have?


CREDITS: Videos and quotations from Dr. Yeap Ban Har’s YouTube channel. “Girl doing homework” photo (top) by ND Strupler and “math notebooking equal fractions” by Jimmie via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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3 thoughts on “Visualizing Word Problems with Bar Model Diagrams

  1. I work with adults, many of whom dropped off the math train early. Word problems are like 500 pound weights to be lifted: it’s not going to happen.
    http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/fob/2008/fob_9a.pdf is an article about a teacher who focuses on “parts and wholes” with her students; we’ve adopted this approach and end up with bar models to represent the parts and the wholes.
    It helps a lot, in part because it’s different than the usual procedural drill, so it doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of “doing kiddie arithmetic” AGAIN, but also because it takes an abstract idea and breaks it into manageable ideas.

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