Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Math Word Problem Struggles

Kai does very well in math normally, but there are areas where he really struggles.

I had him do coordinate plane word problems on his online Khan Academy program the other day.

The first problem stated that an ad was as 4 inches wide by 3 inches high. The upper left corner of the ad was given as (-6, -2) on the coordinate plane. Kai would have to place the four corners of the ad.

I thought this was a very easy problem for him.

So I was a little surprised when he didn’t know where to begin.

I asked him if he knew where one corner of the ad was. He tentatively moved his cursor to place the point in the wrong spot.

I stopped him and asked him to read where the sentence that gave the coordinates for the upper left corner.

He was starting to get agitated, and he did not pick up the fact that all he needed to do was to plot a point at (-6, -2).

I wrote out (x, y) on a sheet of paper and asked if he knew the x and y coordinates of the upper left corner. He would not answer the question.

I then told him that the he needed to plot a point at (-6, -2) and asked him to point on the screen where that point is. He waved his hand wildly, not pointing to any particular spot. He was getting more agitated, and I was starting to get that way, too.

I finally explained that -6 on the x coordinate meant that we needed to count six places to the left, and -2 on the y coordinate meant that we needed to count two places down. This was not the first time we have worked on coordinate planes. This really should not have been so hard.

I finally got him to place that first point. I breathed a sigh of relief as I thought the other three corners would be easy.

I was wrong.

He started to place the next corner in the wrong spot.

I stopped him. I pointed out that the first point he plotted was the upper left corner. When it says “upper,” does it mean that it is at the top or bottom? He answered bottom.


I was getting very frustrated.

I drew a rectangle on the paper. I asked him to point to the upper left corner, and he was able to do so. I asked him to write down the coordinate of the upper left corner. He resisted.

I yelled that he needed to write it down.

Now he was getting more upset.

If the upper left corner was at (-6, -2) and the height was 3, how far down to we count to get to the bottom left corner?

I thought I was giving away the answer but he just did not seem to understand any of it.

My frustration boiled over, and I was shouting my questions at him. He was yelling back saying that he never wanted to Khan Academy with me again.

My wife came downstairs to find out what was going on.

She suggested that she could take over for me, but I didn’t want to end on this sour note.

I had Kai take a five-minute break, which extended longer than that. For most of the time he was still yelling that he wanted to do this with Mom, not Dad.

Finally, my wife encouraged him to come try again.

I spoke very softly. Okay, we know where the upper left corner is. And we know the height is 3. Let’s count down three from the point we already plotted.

Finally, with me pretty much giving him the complete answer, he was able to plot out the other three corners.

And after he completed this one problem, he was able to do four more similar to it all on his own.

But it was an eye-opener for me how he struggles to comprehend the simplest things that are in word problems. It showed me how reading comprehension is still such a big issue for him.

So, we’ve got a couple of big things to work on: Kai’s reading comprehension, and my patience.

I think that progress with the latter will be essential to making progress on the former.


  1. I know the scenario...believe me, I know. What I had done was to do pretty much what you had done. I broke the problems down to the most basic components...I showed him how to do the first step, I then had him do the same on multiple problems (just that first step)...and so on until the whole problem was done. I then did a complete problem, had him do complete problems...multiple times. I then asked him for the underlying concept. It has always worked this way. You had success doing the same thing.

    Now, the patience on our part...far more difficult to solve :)

    1. Haha, yes, I wish there were step by step solutions for developing patience. ;)


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