Let’s start by asking a new 1st grader a question:
“What is 5 x 4?”
What’s ‘times’ mean?
If you are “lucky” enough to have a child who will (loudly) let you know when they are frustrated, you might hear:
“I don’t know!”
Wow. That kinda hurt my ears. Let’s start over.
“Let’s pretend there is a parking lot. It has 4 rows for cars to park. Each row can hold 5 cars. How many cars can park in the lot?”
When I look at my 1st grader for his reaction, I notice something new in his eyes. It looks almost like…yes, it definitely is…eagerness! He wants to solve this problem. He needs to solve this problem! How can he solve this problem?
I see him thinking.
“Can I go get my cars?”
“Of course.” What? You think I’m going to stop his excitement? Heck no. Let’s keep this ball rolling.
After setting up the parking lot, he is able to count the cars and tell me the answer. Quite proudly.
The whole process (not all of it detailed here) took about 25 minutes. A lot longer than it would take to have him memorize flashcards. So why do it if it takes so long?
Story Problems are Concrete
Children can act out story problems. They can touch, see and experience them.
In my example, Ben was able to create the parking lot making the problem (5 x 4) possible for him to solve. Once he has more experience with this kind of problem, he will be able to visualize 5 x 4 and won’t need his cars to help. Then I could ask “What’s 5 x 4” and he would (not just recite) but know the answer.
It won’t take long before he will understand (really understand) what multiplication means and be able to answer problems he hasn’t actually worked with before. Once he gets the concept, he can change the parking lot in his head to whatever the problem requires.
Not only did he get a problem he enjoyed solving, but he got a way to “see” multiplication.
Children of Different Levels Can Solve the Same Problem
This is particularly important for homeschoolers. Did you ever imagine having some of your children grouped together to learn math? No way!
Don’t get me wrong, it takes skill. It takes practice and adjusting your expectations. (I am in the middle of figuring out the best way to give all of my children the same story problems to work on. When I am done, I will let you know what I learned. Subscribe, so that you don’t miss it.)
Story Problems Add Interest
I know how to get my son interested. He’s pretty easy. Any problem involving action and he’s hooked.
Grace is a little trickier. Okay, a lot trickier. If I find a way to make her care about the character then she will completely take over the problem.
That’s the key. Make them want it. There is no way to do that without interest.
After Ben solved the parking lot problem, we practiced counting by 5’s. I explained what ‘times’ means (in this case 5, 4 times or 5 x 4). Then he said something awesome:
“What would 4 x 5 be?”
Let’s find out!
He rearranged the cars to make 5 groups of 4. Then we counted by 4’s and learned that 4 x 5 is 20! It’s cute how shocked he was.
Then he wanted to add 4 more cars to see what 4 x 6 would be.
And then Mommy said she was done and it was time to put the cars away. I know, Mommy’s a party pooper. But we had been working with the cars for 25 minutes and I was done.
My goal was for him to try the problem and get a brief intro to multiplication. He added 4 or more activities on top of what I had planned. That’s what interest does.
It Doesn’t Take a Math Nerd to Write Story Problems
Writing story problems is easy. The more you do it the easier it gets. Once you start writing them and solving them with your children it will get even easier. You’ll notice what kind of problems spark your child’s interest. You’ll start writing them in your sleep.
Seriously. Have a pen and paper ready by your bed.
Here are the “get ready right now steps” to writing story problems:
- Write the number sentence they are going to solve. (5 + 2 = 7)
- Think of the theme or another way to get your child interested.
- Write two or three and pick your favorite. (you don’t have to write more than one but it sometimes helps to get ideas flowing)
- Hand to child to solve
Let’s say I am making a problem for Ben. We’ll pick the problem 7+8 and use Angry Birds Star Wars for interest. Here’s the problem I made:
Ben was playing Angry Birds Star Wars. He sent Luke Skywalker into the structure and destroyed 7 Stormtrooper Pigs. Yes! Next Ben shot Obiwan into the battle and decimated the last 8 Stormtrooper Pigs. There were a lot of pigs! How many pigs did Ben get?
Or, here’s a harder one with the same numbers:
There were 15 Stormtrooper Pigs in a level of Angry Birds Star Wars. Luke Skywalker went into battle first destroying many of the enemy. Obiwan went next defeating the last 8 Stormtrooper Pigs. Who destroyed more Stormtrooper Pigs? Obiwan? or Luke?
I can’t wait to give that problem to him.
Now for Grace. Grace is a lot harder to draw in. I miss many times. If your first few story problems don’t draw your kids, know that you are normal and they probably are too. Just keep trying.
I am going to give her the problem 17 + 23 and see if I can draw her in with a social problem…stealing.
Grace has a beautiful garden that she has worked all spring on. Look! What’s in the garden? It’s a cute little bunny. Oh, wait. It’s 5 little bunnies! After watching the bunnies, Grace realizes that they are eating her carrots. Shoo bunny, Shoo! It’s too late. The bunnies have eaten 17 of Grace’s carrots.
The next day, What do you think Grace finds in her garden? Those bunnies are back! Shoo! After careful counting, Grace discovers she is missing another 23 carrots. 23! How many carrots did those rascally rabbits eat?
How can we stop the bunnies from eating Grace’s carrots?
These problems are tailored to be interesting to my own two unique kids. I have found it helpful to write down what my kids have been watching and playing to give me inspiration.
Story Problems are Easy to Adjust to Any Level
I have had it happen a few times. I give a problem and immediately receive an answer. Whoops. The numbers were too easy.
I give the problem and they burst into tears. The numbers were too challenging (or at least the child thought so).
When this happens it’s not a big deal. There are some simple fixes for both scenarios.
If the problem is too easy
I just change the numbers, or more likely, one number.
If Ben answered the Star Wars problem immediately I would assume that he had that one memorized. I might change 7+8 to 7+9 or 7+18.
If Grace’s 17+23 was too easy, I might change it to 17+24 or 17+28.
If it’s too challenging
Start with helping them visualize the problem. Get out something to count, or pen and paper, or number bond mats.
I change the numbers as a last resort. Unless, I am using a program and I think it’s legitimately too hard.
Are You Still Nervous About Story Problems?
I get it. It’s scary doing something new. Start small. Relax. Have fun!
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