If Keywords Don’t Work, Then What?

Full disclosure: I used keywords when teaching my students how to solve word problems.

I had a K-5 classroom for students with autism.  There were so many different learning styles and needs just within my small class.  In addition, these students, for the most part, were severely affected.  Many did not speak, most did not read,  and some were working at a preschool or lower academic level.  The issue was: some of these students were in 4th and 5th grades.  I felt compelled to somehow teach grade level content.  It seemed hard for me to imagine some of them ever having to solve a problem like:

The train left the station at 7:45 pm going 65 mph.  If Smallville is 75 miles away, what time will the train get there?

But, some might have to solve:

You want to make brownies.  You need to add 1/2 cup of flour in the beginning and 1/2 cup of flour at the end.  How much flour will you need to make the brownies?

So, after some preliminary research, I grabbed onto the idea of using keywords.  I made every student a Keyword index card.    It looked like this:

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We would take the word problem, and not even read it.  We would just look for a KEYWORD.  Then the students would highlight it.  Boy did they LOVE to highlight things.  Then we would circle any numbers we found and put them together using the operation from the correct column where they had found the keyword.  It seemed like such a great strategy, until I came across this problem on the end of year test:

I had 5 apples in my basket on Monday. On Tuesday I increased the amount of apples so now I have 7 altogether. How many apples did I add on Tuesday?

Using my strategy, my students happily highlighted the word altogether, found it on their card and completed the problem:

5 + 7 = 12  I had 12 apples on Tuesday!!

They were so sure, so proud of themselves, and of course so wrong.

I so wish this strategy would have worked.  For students with autism and other significant disabilities, they really need a way to make things that are abstract more concrete or black and white.  I still believe that, but now I know a better way to make that happen.

  • First, you have to truly embrace and believe this is a worthwhile skill to teach to as many of your students as possible.
  • Second, you have to realize that because this is truly a difficult skill even for our typical students, it will take lots and lots of practice.  Really, LOTS and LOTS of practice.
  • Third, you need to bring in manipulatives to help the students turn this abstract problem into something more tactile that they can set up and understand.
  • Fourth, the problems need to be real.  You should use problems that are practical and make sense to the students you are teaching.  This will allow them to activate prior knowledge and make new connections that will help them solve word problems for years to come.

So, let’s look at how to work through a word problem with your students in a more appropriate and successful (not necessarily quick and easy) way.

Joe is allowed to watch 4 hours of TV at night.  He has already watched 2 hours of TV.  How many more house of TV can Joe watch?

This problem addresses a very real situation that your students may find themselves in.  There are two ways to approach this problem:  as a subtraction problem AND as an addition problem.  It is important to use both methods if possible to expand your students’ true understanding of what is happening.  Let’s work through it as an addition problem.

  1. READ through the problem.
  2. Talk through what is happening in general terms.
  3. Come up with some general estimates of an answer.  For example, would it be reasonable to say Joe can watch 5 more hours of TV?  Why or why not.  This step really helps you assess if the students are grasping what the problem is really about.
  4. Using a work mat, set up the problem using manipulatives.  I like to use a sticky note for the operation.  That way the work mat is always the same, and the student can choose the operation he/she wants to use to solve the problem.Aviary Photo_130903520626126502

5. Have students talk about and share with each other how they decided to set up their manipulatives.  The more they can explain what they are doing, the better they truly understand it.         Aviary Photo_1309035208021172476.  After talking through the solution, have students write the number sentence that represents the answer to the problem.                                                                       7.  Finally, have students check their work by solving the problem and seeing if it makes sense.

I am sure to many of you who teach severely affected students, this may sound way too complicated or even absurd.  But I challenge you to try it.  Students will only rise to the expectations that we set, and wouldn’t it be tragic if we set the bar too low.

If you would like more resources on solving word problems, including:

  • Even more suggestions, like how to incorporate your really low learners
  • Small group practice problems
  • Worksheets that follow the same format as the work mat

Click on the pictures below:

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5 Things About Me

So here are 5 things about me…

5 facts about me filled out

  1.  I am a veterinarian.  I graduated in 1995 from the College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, NC.  I practiced small animal medicine until my son was born in 1997.  I LOVED it.  But, due to his needs and diagnosis of autism,  I gave up my career to try and “cure” him.  Nope, didn’t work.  Thus fact 2…                                                       NCSU-CVM
  2. I have an 18 year old son with severe autism.  I love him to death, despite the fact it certainly is not the life I though I would lead.  I went back to school and learned all I could about autism and other disabilities, which led me to getting a master’s in sped ed.  (For those of you who are counting, yes, I have a bachelor degree, a doctorate degree, and a master’s degree.  Luckily, I LOVE school.)                                 Jimmy PB2
  3. Reading is my absolute favorite leisure activity.  I find time to read every day, usually when I am done with my TPT work.  A glass of wine and a comfy chair and I am in heaven.  I will read anything.  My favorite reads are books with complex family sagas.  I also love a good thriller.book
  4. So I would say I love to quilt, but I find it cuts into my obsession listed in number 3.  I usually put time aside on the weekends to quilt, forcing myself to take a step back from the computer and constant work on my TPT store.  Thus, it maintains my sanity.  I used to make a different quilt to hang outside my classroom door every month of the year while I was teaching.  The kids loved it; now my friends and family are the benefactors of this hobby.                                  Aviary Photo_130887084357723518
  5. My family spends as many days as we can at my in-law’s small house on High Rock Lake in NC.  It is tiny with only one bathroom, but I could move out there and live happily today.  It sits on the water with a long dock that faces the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen.  My son loves it there, and I know that eventually he, I and my husband will end up living on the water.  I just have to be patient, but I cannot wait!!sunset