Word problems in primary mathematics : types of difficulties experienced by some 'average' eight and nine year olds, and the effect of manipulating selected structural variables
This project investigates primary 4 children's difficulties when solving word problems. It consists of an exploratory study examining the feasibility of using task-based interviews in the school setting; and a main study divided into three phases. The tasks set to the children are selected/adapted word problems from SPNG textbook Stage 2. Phase 1 investigates the difficulties of forty "average" primary 4 children from five different schools. Task-based interviews are used in conjunction with an error analysis. Phase 2 makes structural alterations to six of the most difficult Phase 1 word problems to investigate more closely the possible cause of difficulty. These altered word problems are re-presented to the Phase 1 sample. The original problems are not re-presented to this sample as the task-based interviews allowed for considerable practice of these original problems. Phase 3 took place a year later than Phase 2 and presents the structurally altered word problems alongside the original problems to a different, but similar sample. This sample consists of 126 children from the five schools participating during Phase 1/2. It is suggested that the findings do not support the view that a small unvarying number of variables consistently affect problem difficulty. Rather the sources of difficulty are likely to stem from a number of highly complex interacting sources; and the language itself need not be the block it sometimes appears to be. Informal strategies were evidently important for a significant minority of children, particularly in relation to subtraction problems. This seems well worth investigating further. The use of these strategies suggested that the language of the word problem could be understood when the child could link it to his/her informal strategies. Also, given simpler numbers, the semantic implications of the problem could often be mastered.