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Words & the World

Many students shudder at the thought of what they call "word problems." Please don't let that pass without addressing it. Those "words" are being used to form a description of a situation, in other words, an application. This is how the real world presents itself: as situations. Word problems also come with a question about that situation, a question that can be answered by figuring out which part of one's knowledge needs to be used. The ability to do this - with math and in other ways - is a big part of why they are going to pay your student in a job some day.

The word problems in the College Bound weekly math sets have much in common with the problems in good math textbooks and the math SATs. Starting in 2016, SAT Math will more than ever take into account that the real world presents itself in situations described in words and data.

In life, we may learn about situations by watching, web-searching, reading text, looking at data, and in other ways. Word problems simplify all that by extracting key facts and stating them, so all the student has to do in order to get the facts is to read a brief narrative or description of a situation, perhaps with a small table of data.

Still, they must read carefully and with understanding. They then need to translate the words, phrases and sentences into the language of mathematics. They have to determine what "facts on the ground" are given or not given. The words of a word problem also include a question ("What is.." or "How many.." etc. ) or command ("Find.. " or "Give.. "). From their growing bag of mathematical tools, they need to select the ones that fit the situation and then apply those tools to the facts in ways that make sense and will lead to an answer.

In our math problems I often use word problems to emphasize the usefulness of math. Math is applied in dozens of fields: in the sciences and the many branches of engineering, of course, but also in business, the social sciences and beyond. Math literacy will open doors for your student. By basing problems on applications, I hope to make a credible claim that math permeates and enriches our lives. I like to say that if you don't think math is all around you, you're not looking carefully and in the right direction.