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,
websearching, 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.
