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helping my student figure out word problems

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No matter what we do, my son 15, can't seem to figure out word problems.  If he has the problem (in numbers) he can learn to solve it, but taking a word problem and having to figure out what to do to solve the problem is quite difficult for him.   He has always had difficulty with this concept...but up until now, I could explain it to him..but now that he is doing upper level math, I can't explain it....even if I understand it..which I sometimes do...but often don't.    Since, I know someone will ask....we are currently running through the books "Learn Math Fast" and he is in the Algebra 2 book.  My hope is because he is only a sophomore, he can take another (more rigorous program) during  the next 2 years and he will have a better handle on the math.   Does anybody have any ideas for us on this?  thanks. 

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My thought is to go back to the beginning - all the way back to "3 apples to 5 apples is how many apples?" - and move quickly forward till you get to a place where he can't do them entirely on his own, to figure out what he does and doesn't understand.  (If you still have your elementary math curriculum, you can use it for problems; else, Ray's Arithmetic is free and has a lot of straightforward ones.)  With the way he's had problems all the way through, and always needed you to explain them, it might be that he never really internalized how to do even the easier word problems on his own - that he doesn't have the foundation for the harder ones he faces now. 

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Math problems in high school are challenging because there are so many "moving parts" --- so many things to think about. There is rarely an easy, straight path to the answer. So your son needs a way to focus his thoughts on the problem and feel his way through the darkness. And he needs to be comfortable with the idea of dead ends, that he may have to try several different things before he discovers the approach that will work for that problem.

Part of that is what they're calling these days a "growth mindset" --- the willingness to keep trying in the face of failure, trusting that you can figure it out. And part of it is learning to develop a systematic way to think about complex situations.

I wrote a blog post about how to solve story problems that you and your son might find useful:

I later expanded that into a short pdf book that you can pick up free at my newsletter site: free 24-page problem-solving booklet. (No subscription necessary!)


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