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Reading Ability Helps Improve Math Word Problems

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

Without strong reading skills, it's impossible to solve word problems, no matter how strong in math your child may be. Difficulty in solving word problems often indicates gaps in reading ability, rather than a deficiency in math.

Literacy skills are important for understanding everything from the instructions the teacher writes on the board, to what the instructions mean in a textbook or a worksheet. In addition to this, math vocab is specialized. The word "division" for example in math means “the opposite operation of multiplication.” If a child understands "division" to mean “something that separates,” it might cause confusion in a math word problem.

Solving a word problem involves:

  1. a. Reading the question very carefully

  2. b. Figuring out what the question is asking

  3. c. Lastly, performing whatever mathematical operation is necessary to solve it

Mathematics is often thought of as a subject that a student either understands or doesn't. In reality, math encompasses a wide variety of skills and concepts that are related and often build on one another. For instance, a child who has difficulty with addition may be successful in another areas, such as geometry.

The processes that help children become strong readers are also important in math. Research has shown that phonological processing, for example, is a key factor in math success. For children to succeed in mathematics, a number of brain functions need to work together. Most researchers agree that memory, language, attention, temporal-sequential ordering, higher-order cognition, and spatial ordering are among the neurodevelopmental functions that play a role when children think with numbers.

Children who read for pleasure had almost 10% advantage in their math ability. This was shown in a study conducted by the Institute of Education at London University. The study’s author argues that “strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information.” This ability can help in any subject, including math.

Clearly, the connection between reading comprehension and math skills is significant. Developing reading skills helps your child far beyond English class.

It's also imperative that a child's difficulty with math word problems is dealt with promptly -- before children lose confidence or develop a fear of math that follows them through adulthood with often negative consequences.

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