# The Case Against Keywords in Math

Aug 30, 2022If you take a walk around your local elementary schools, I can almost guarantee that you will be able to find posters in the classrooms that list the four basic operations of add, subtract, multiply and divide accompanied by a list of “keywords” associated with each operation. I will admit that I used to teach this strategy in my own classroom! Students are taught early on that certain words can be linked to certain operations. They are encouraged (or required) to look for these key words in word problems to determine how to solve them. This strategy is somewhat effective in the early elementary years of mathematics but becomes extremely unreliable in the upper elementary grades and into middle school leaving students feeling even more frustrated and defeated.

Here is some evidence to make my case:

**Exhibit A: **

*Paul and Isaiah have 32 books in all. If Paul has 20 books, how many books does Isaiah have?*

Students commonly look at this word problem and as soon as they see the keywords, **in all, **add together the numbers 32 and 20 and arrive at an incorrect answer of 42.

**Exhibit B:**

*Natalie has $38 saved. This is $45 less than her sister Holly has saved. How much money does Holly have saved?*

Students are taught that the keyword **less **means subtract. After reading this problem and seeing the word **less****, **many times they will subtract 45-38 and arrive at an incorrect answer of $7.

In addition, keywords never work for multi-step problems.

**Exhibit C:**

*Susan baked a berry pie. The recipe called for 6 ounces of raspberries, 8 ounces of blackberries, and 6 ounces of strawberries. At the store, Susan could only find 12-ounce cans of each type of berry, and she bought 1 can of each. After baking the pie, how many ounces of berries will Susan have left?*

The keyword **left** is heavily associated with subtraction. As you can see in this word problem, there will definitely be some subtracting that needs to be done, but to obtain a correct answer students will also need to perform some addition.

Finally, many word problems do not contain any keywords at all ….

**Exhibit D:**

*Abby set up a lemonade and cookie stand. She sold lemonade for $0.75 a cup and bags of 3 cookies for $1.50 per bag. She sold 30 cookies and 45 cups of lemonade. How much money did she make?*

I could keep going giving examples of word problems where keywords just do not work. I know this, because as a teacher that used to teach students to use keywords, I have awkwardly stood in front of my class facing such a word problem and then rambled out something like, “Well this problem is what we call a* rulebreaker*.” (shame), or “Since this problem doesn’t really *have* any keywords, we are going to try and figure out what key word *could* be inserted somewhere in the problem.” (double shame).

The verdict is…. students need to be taught an efficient strategy to use when solving word problems that they can rely on. Research has shown that identifying a word problem's schema, or type, is a much more effective strategy than keywords when it comes to learning how to solve word problems. Most word problems that students encounter in math during the elementary years can be categorized into 6 different schemas based on the structure of the word problem (The IRIS Center, 2017).

If your student needs help with math word problems, our digital course Word Problems Unlocked teaches students the strategy of identifying a word problem’s schema, or type, to solve the problem. Students learn 5 of the different types of word problem schemas through evidence based instructional practices presented through recorded lessons taught by a real teacher.

When you purchase the *Word Problems Unlocked* digital course, your student will not only receive high quality math instruction, but they will also have lifetime access to the reusable course materials including instructional videos, colorful visual organizers, and printable guided practice and homework pages. No more worries about trying to figure out how to solve a word problem if you do not know! There are more than 80 word problems included throughout our course and every single one has an instructional video that can be watched, paused and rewatched as much as needed.

Imagine your student tackling a word problem with confidence instead of panic because they know exactly what steps to take to arrive at a correct answer. Enroll your student today and give them the tools they need to become a confident problem solver.

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