## New Book: Word Problems from Literature

The posts on my Let’s Play Math blog are, for the most part, first-draft material. Of course, I’ve proofread each post — many times! because I’m a perfectionist that way, and yet I still miss typos — but these articles haven’t gotten the sort of feedback that polishes a book manuscript.

Well, now I’m taking some of the best of my old blog posts, expanding them with a few new games or activities, and giving them that book-quality polish. Let me introduce my newest series, the Playful Math Singles.

### Under Construction …

The Playful Math Singles from Tabletop Academy Press will be short, topical books featuring clear explanations and ready-to-play activities.

I’m hoping to finish up two or three of these this year. Watch for them at your favorite online bookstore.

The first one is done …

### Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Young children expect to look at a word problem and instantly see the answer. But as they get older, their textbook math problems also grow in difficulty, so this solution-by-intuitive-leap becomes impossible.

Too often the frustrated child concludes, “I’m just not good at math.”

But with guided practice, any student can learn to master word problems.

Word Problems from Literature features math puzzles for elementary and middle school students from classic books such as Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Hobbit.

For each puzzle, I demonstrate step by step how to use the problem-solving tool of bar model diagrams, a type of pictorial algebra. For children who are used to playing with Legos or other blocks — or with computer games like Minecraft — this approach reveals the underlying structure of a math word problem. Students can make sense of how each quantity in the story relates to the others and see a path to the solution.

And when you finish the puzzles in this book, I’ll show you how to create your own word problems from literature, based in your children’s favorite story worlds.

If you’re using these word problems with your children, consider buying them the paperback companion Word Problems from Literature Student Workbook.

##### … and People Like It!

A screen shot from this past weekend:

“I found this method really clarified for me what was going on visually and conceptually. Particularly when it came to more complex questions, for which I would normally write out an equation, I felt that thinking about what was going on with the bars actually made more sense … This is a wonderful book for those who want to support their children in finding better ways to work on word problems.”

—Miranda Jubb, Amazon customer reviewer

## Beauty in Math: A Fable

Have you ever wondered what mathematicians mean when they talk about a “beautiful” math proof?

“Beauty in mathematics is seeing the truth without effort.”

“There’s something striking about the economy of the counselor’s construction. He drew a single line, and that totally changed one’s vision of the geometry involved.

“Very often, there’s a simple introduction of something that’s not logically within the framework of the question — and it can be very simple — and it utterly changes your view of what the question really is about.”

CREDITS: Castle photo (top) by Rachel Davis via Unsplash. “A Mathematical Fable” via YouTube. Story told by Barry Mazur. Animation by Pete McPartlan. Video by Brady Haran for Numberphile.

## 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.

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

“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

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

“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?

### Update: My New Book

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Check out Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams—now available at all your favorite online bookstores!

And there’s a paperback Student Workbook, too.

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).

## Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers.

People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement.

The conclusion simply isn’t valid.

## What Do We Mean by ‘Understanding’?

“You understand something if you have the ability to view it from different perspectives.

“Changing your perspective makes your mind more flexible, it makes you open to new things, and it makes you able to understand things.”

— Roger Antonsen
Math is the hidden secret to understanding the world

Check out the speaker’s footnotes for links and interesting tidbits about the images in the video.

## Prof. Triangleman’s Abbreviated List of Standards for Mathematical Practice

How can we help children learn to think mathematically? Live by these four principles.

### PTALSMP 2: Play.

See what happens if you carry out the computation you have in mind, even if you are not sure it’s the right one. See what happens if you do it the other way around. Try to think like someone else would think. Tweak and see what happens.

### PTALSMP 3: Argue.

Say why you think you are right. Say why you might be wrong. Try to understand how someone else sees things, and say why you think their perspective may be valid. Do not accept what others say is so, but listen carefully to it so that you can decide whether it is.

### PTALSMP 4: Connect.

Ask how this thing is like other things. Try your ideas out on a new problem. Ask whether and how these ideas apply to other situations. Look for similarities and differences. Seek out the boundaries and limitations of your techniques.

— Christopher Danielson

### And a Puzzle

Practice applying Professor Triangleman’s Standards to the puzzle below. Which one doesn’t belong? Can you say why someone else might pick a different one?

CREDITS: An expanded version of the standards originally posted in Ginger ale (also abbreviated list of Standards for Mathematical Practice). Feature photo by Alexander Mueller via Flicker. This post is an excerpt from my book Multiplication & Fractions: Math Games for Tough Topics, available now at your favorite online book dealer.

## Making Sense of Arithmetic

Homeschoolers have an advantage in teaching math: As our students grow, our own understanding of math grows with them because we see how the ideas build on each other.

This is especially true for those of us with large families. We pass through the progression of concepts with each student, and every pass lays down another layer in our own minds.

If you’d like to short-cut that process, check out Graham Fletcher’s Making Sense of Elementary Math video series. He’ll walk you through the topics, showing how manipulatives help build early concepts and gradually give way to abstract calculations.

“Understanding the vertical progression of mathematics is really important in the conceptual development of everyone’s understanding. This whole Making Sense Series has truly forced me to be a better teacher.”

— Graham Fletcher

## FAQ: He Won’t Stop Finger-Counting

“My oldest son has somehow developed the horrid habit of counting on his fingers. We worked on the math facts all summer. He knows the answers in simple form, such as 9 + 4, but if it’s in a bigger problem like 249 + 54, he counts up to add or counts down to subtract, all using fingers. My younger children have no problem with mental math, but he can’t seem to get it. Are there any tips or tricks to stop this?”

Counting on fingers is not a horrid habit, it is a crutch. Please think for a moment about the purpose of crutches. The blasted things are an uncomfortable nuisance, but there are times when you can’t get anywhere without them. And if you need them, it does you no good for a friend to insist you should crawl along on your own.

That is how your son feels right now about his fingers. He is struggling with something his younger siblings find easy, and he can tell that you are frustrated. His confidence is broken, in a cast, and needs time for healing. So he falls back on what he knows he can do, counting up the answer.

Think positive: this means he still believes that math ought to make sense — that to understand what he is doing is more important than to guess at an answer. You want him to value sense-making, because otherwise he will try to memorize his way through middle school and high school math. That is the road to disaster.

“Schools spend a lot of time working with young children to get these facts memorized, but many children aren’t ready for that task yet. They’ll count on their fingers, and may be reprimanded for it.
“What happens when a person becomes embarrassed about counting on their fingers? If they still want to think, they’ll hide it. That’s the better option. The worse option that way too many students choose? They start guessing. When math becomes too incomprehensible, or not living up to someone else’s expectations becomes too painful, many students give up on math, and then they just guess.
“We count on our fingers as part of a thinking process. Perhaps the thing I want to figure can be memorized. But if I haven’t memorized it yet myself, the most efficient way to figure it will likely involve fingers.

—Sue VanHattum
Philosophy

### The Problem of Transfer

What you describe is called the problem of transfer, and it is one of the huge, unsolved problems of education.

We can train someone to do a simple, limited task such as answering flash cards. But how do we get that knowledge to sink in, to become part of the mind, so they can use it in all sorts of different situations?

No one has figured that out.

There is no easy solution. It requires patience, and providing a variety of experiences, and patience, and pointing out connections, and asking the student to think of connections, and lots more patience.

### Some Things to Try

It might help to do fewer math problems in a day, so you can take time to work more deeply on each one. Talk together about the different ways you might solve it. Make it a challenge: “Can we think of three different ways to do it?”

In math, there is never just one way to get a solution. Thinking about alternatives will help your son develop that transfer of skills.

Or pick up some workbooks that target mental math methods. The Mental Math workbook series by Jack Hope and Barbara and Robert Reys will help him master the techniques your younger kids learned without effort. It may still take him longer to do a calculation than what you are used to with the other children, but these books will give him a boost in recognizing the types of mental tools he can use.

Here are a few of my previous blog posts that include mental math tips:

Or perhaps encourage him to keep using his fingers, but to switch to a more efficient system, such as Chisenbop. According to math education expert Jo Boaler, research shows that finger-counting supports mathematical understanding.

### Mental Math: A Battle Worth Fighting

Jumping into mental math is hard for an older child who wasn’t taught that way. I believe it’s a battle worth fighting, because those mental math techniques build understanding of the fundamental properties of numbers.

But the main goal is for him to recognize his options and build flexibility, not to do each calculation as fast as possible.

And be sure he no longer needs those crutches before you try to take them away.

CREDITS: “Stryde Walking To School on his New Crutches” by Jim Larrison and “Silhouette of a boy” by TimOve via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

## New Book: Avoid Hard Work

I’ve loved James Tanton’s How to Be a Math Genius videos for years. He offers great problem-solving tips like:

• Visualize: think of a picture.
• Use common sense to avoid grungy work.
• Engage in intellectual play.
• Think relationally: understanding trumps memorization.
• Be clear on what you don’t know — and comfortable enough to admit it.

Seriously, those are wonderful videos. If you haven’t seen them before, go check them out. Be sure to come back, though, because I’ve just heard some great news.

### Natural Problem-Solving Skills

Tanton has joined up with the NaturalMath.com team of Maria Droujkova, Yelena McManaman, and Ever Salazar to put together a book for parents, teachers, math circle leaders, and anyone else who works with children ages 3–10.

It’s called Avoid Hard Work, and it takes a playful look at ten powerful problem-solving techniques.

### Join the Crowdfunding Campaign

For more details about Avoid Hard Work, including a 7-page pdf sample with tips and puzzles to enjoy, check out the crowdfunding page at Natural Math:

Read the questions and answers. Try the activities with your children. And donate to support playful math education!

## FAQ: Lifelong Learning for Parents

“I’m so tired of being ignorant about math. I can memorize rules and do calculations, but if I miss a step the numbers make no sense at all, and I can’t spot what went wrong. Another struggle I have is keeping everything organized in my mind. When I learn a new concept or strategy, I easily forget it. My son is only a toddler now, but as he grows up, I don’t want to burden him with my own failures. Where should I start?”

As a first step, convince yourself that math is interesting enough to learn on its own merits, because parental guilt will only carry you so far. Start with Steven Strogatz’s “Elements of Math” series from The New York Times, or pick up his book The Joy of x.

As a next step, reassure yourself that elementary math is hard to understand, so it’s not strange that you get confused or don’t know how to explain a topic. Get Liping Ma’s Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics from the library or order a used copy of the first edition. Ma examines what it means to understand math and to clearly explain it to others.

Don’t rush through the book as if it were a novel. There are four open-ended questions, each at the beginning of a chapter, after which several possible answers are analyzed. When you read one of these questions, close the book. Think about how you would answer it yourself. Write out a few notes, explaining your thoughts as clearly as you can. Only then, after you have decided what you would have said, read the rest of that section.

Don’t worry if you can’t understand everything in the book. Come back to it again in a couple of years. You’ll be surprised how much more you learn.

### Books for Parents and Teachers

To build up your own understanding of elementary arithmetic, the Kitchen Table Math series by Chris Wright offers explanations and activities you can try with your children.

If you want more detailed guidance in understanding and explaining each stage of elementary mathematics, you can pick up a textbook designed for teachers in training. I like the Parker & Baldridge Elementary Mathematics for Teachers books and the Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics: Developmentally Appropriate Instruction series. The two series are completely different, but they complement each other well. Check out the sample chapters from the publishers’ websites to see which one you prefer.

Discover more great books on my Living Math Books for Parents and Other Teachers page.

### Focus on Relationships

As you learn, focus on how the math concepts relate to each other. Then the more you learn, the easier you will find it to connect things in your mind and to grasp new ideas.

You might want to keep a math journal about the things you are learning. When you write something down, that helps you remember it, even if you never look back at the journal. But if your mind goes blank and you think, “I know I studied that,” the journal gives you a quick way to review. Make it even easier to flip back through by writing the topic you are studying in the top margin of each page.

When you run into a new vocabulary word, draw a Frayer Model Chart and fill in all the sections. The Frayer Model provides a way to organize information about a new vocabulary word or math concept.

And if you read something that’s particularly helpful, you may want to turn to the back page of your journal and start a quick-reference section.