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MathStories.com: The Solution to Finding Creative Math Word Problems

Curriculum CenterWhen Ashok Bansal discovered that children struggle when math problems aren't phrased as computation exercises, he decided to create a resource that would provide an abundance of challenging mathematical word problems. Now, MathStories.com includes more than 15,000 problems for students at all grade levels. It's a terrific resource for teachers too!

"I have two children in elementary school," Bansal told Education World. "I noticed their school devoted more than 80 percent of [their math] time to doing computational problems. When I translated the same computational problems into word problems, [the children] had a difficult time doing them. I realized that solving computational problems was easy because the math operation is given."

The creator of MathStories.com, Bansal credits serendipity for the development of his popular site for teachers -- his children needed a new and challenging way to learn to solve mathematical word problems. His site now boasts more than 15,000 word problems for students at all levels -- and teachers, students, and parents can't get enough of them!

"Word problems require critical-thinking and problem-solving skills," Bansal continued. "Basically, the child has to understand the issues raised in the problem and then figure out the solutions. I observed that schools don't do a lot of word problems because [they are] very time intensive."

A scientist with master's degrees in both physics and electrical engineering, Bansal believes that "critical-thinking and problem-solving skills pervade every facet of our lives and these skills have to develop at a young age." He designed MathStories.com to focus on what he sees as the weakest area of education -- development of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

"Unlike computational math problems, you have to read a word problem several times to understand it," said Bansal. "Children hate it. They read the first line and start solving the problem.

"Solving word problems is an uncharted territory," he explained. "Solving word problems requires reading, comprehension, and analytical skills. First, you have to learn how to read effectively. Word problems can be phrased differently and are very much dependent upon their writers. Second, you should be able to figure out what is given and what is desired. Once you know this, you need to determine what portion of the given information is useful. You need to determine what steps you have to take to get to the desired results."

MATHEMATICAL SUM = COMPREHENSION + COMPUTATION

A native of India, Bansal immigrated to the United States to do graduate work at Northwestern University, near Chicago. He currently lives in Santa Clara, California, and works for a high-tech company. MathStories.com is an outcome of his passion for teaching and love for his children. He wanted his site to make math education fun, not a mundane chore. He sought to integrate math into other subjects, such as literature, science, social studies, and geography, so that users could easily adopt the activities and focus on more than one area of their curriculum at one time.

Established in 1999, MathStories.com has achieved many of the goals set forth by its creator. The site contains thousands of mathematical word problems, in both English and Spanish. Children, teachers, and parents find it simple, structured, and easy to use. It focuses on content and provides an interesting and challenging math curriculum to suit a range of student needs. The material incorporates additional subject areas, the site is constantly updated, and it saves teachers and parents both money and time.

"I don't want teachers and parents to spend a tremendous of amount of time finding math problems," stated Bansal. "MathStories.com allows parents and teachers to print the math work sheets ahead of time and use them when they are ready. A lot of parents don't have access to the Internet at home. They can print them at work or in libraries for their children. A lot of teachers teaching 'combo' classes (classes that include two grades), have told me how MathStories.com has helped them to teach such heterogeneous classes by providing them with appropriate work sheets."

MATHSTORIES.COM MULTIPLIES MATH SKILLS

"The essence of mathematics is the ability to solve problems in daily life. As an educator, my job is to teach the building blocks for that goal. One block is the form of computation; the other is the strategy to approach each problem," said Cathe Merschat, who teaches at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Macon, Georgia. MathStories.com has helped her develop the problem-solving and computational skills of her students.

"I came upon Mathstories after I read a problem-solving article in Focus Magazine, put out by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse," she reported. "The most outstanding appeal is the 'ready to use' format. I can print a work sheet, and I can cut and paste and alter it to suit my class by choosing particular questions or computation practice exercises. The word problems are 'out of the book' and very well written to appeal to the age or grade level."

Merschat appreciates Mathstories.com because it presents interesting math problems that help students learn and practice specific math skills. It also gives them real-life situations in word problems to develop the problem-solving strategies they will need to deal with questions they will encounter in daily life.

"I have used the exercises as enrichment, as cooperative group problems to teach strategy, and as practice for the area of study we are involved in at the time," Merschat explained. "The kinds of problems I have used from this site have inspired my students to write their own word problems. This is an essential skill for them to develop understanding of problem solving."

The most appealing aspect of the Web site, according to Merschat, is its versatility. When she introduced it to members of her math committee, which includes teachers of all grade levels, they all found different ways to use the site to support their programs.

TLC's Classroom Flyer (now Riverdeep) led Nancy Alley to MathStories.com. "What I particularly enjoy is the variety and quality of the math problems at this site," she said. "Real teachers, who know how to word the questions for a certain grade level, write them. Often, favorite books are used as an exciting launch into a math skill. What a time saver this is! Instead of searching through volumes of resource books, I can quickly scan a list of skills and levels and immediately find what I need."

Alley, who teaches fourth grade at Livingston Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, has found many ways to incorporate the resources on the site into her classroom activities. "I use this site as a source for review work and for ideas to capture students' attention when beginning a new unit," she stated. "When I have a student who is having difficulty with a skill, I can quickly find a skill page to help [him or her] practice, giving [him or her] some additional work in class or at home. I have sent this site address home to parents with Internet access so they can pull extra help for their [children] at home. They love it!"

These days, people often present information for kids as visual pictures rather than in words. Alley believes this causes difficulty when students attempt to process typical word problems. MathStories.com provides math problems in sequential levels, which guide students toward success. When she needs a review for a student who is performing below grade level, Alley no longer purchases a resource book -- she hops on the Net and prints a skill page specifically for the child! She especially appreciates the frequent additions to the site and timely posting of problems related to holidays and current events.

Like Merschat, Alley has found that her peers also adore MathStories.com, which has helped her settle into a new teaching arrangement. "I have recently moved to the Columbus area and at times have had that 'new kid' feeling -- not knowing the ins and outs of a new building. Sharing this Web site with the staff at my school has made me feel like a real contributing member of a team. Now, other teachers come up and ask, 'What else have you found?' "

REAL-LIFE PROBLEMS = COMMON DENOMINATOR

Teachers are not the only individuals who implement the resources of MathStories.com. Charmi O'Connor, a mother from Kneeland, California, discovered the site through California Homeschool News. Bansal has found that his site has special appeal to homes-school teachers. He is pleased that so many parents make its material a part of their teaching curricula in the home.

"I assisted my son in succeeding in conceptualizing math processes through approaching problem solving by using the real-life situations presented in the word problems," O'Connor explained.

Two aspects of the site that appealed to O'Connor were the organization of the site and its reality-based problems. "The teacher has the ability to zero in on a particular lesson and apply it to everyday reasoning through word problems," she said. "The teacher also has the ability to download and print lessons for present as well as future use."

O'Connor sees a gap in comprehension and application that the problems one MathStories.com bridges. "Many students have not had adequate word problems in earlier grades to assist them in applying the math functions and facts they have been exposed to," she stated. "There must be a transference of learned problem-solving techniques to real-life situations. This site assists greatly in overcoming these difficulties by virtue of presenting such word problems to solve."

SITE ADDS TO CORE CURRICULUM

"The best part about Mathstories.com is the range of difficulty it offers," observed Ruth Mistry, a mother of two. "It starts at the very basics and gradually becomes more difficult, and the large number of word problems helps students achieve excellence no matter what area you're concentrating on."

Mistry, a resident of Los Gatos, California, was referred to MathStories.com by a friend and used it with her first-grade daughter. "Sometimes in the classroom, children are all treated or tested the same, even though some children may be much further ahead than others," she explained. "This [site] helps to stimulate her and keep her moving ahead and keep math exciting and challenging. I believe this Web site is ideal for any parent who wants to help a child become proficient at math and enjoy math."

In Bansal's view, the Web is a means for supplying teachers and students with interesting curricula, not a solution to all difficulties encountered in mathematics education. "The Internet is a great tool in securing a wide variety of learning materials for the children," he said. "Printed material is expensive, is usually out of date, and is not readily available. It cannot be customized to the children's needs and interests. MathStories.com has solved all of those problems. The Internet should not be viewed as the solution to all math-learning problems. It is making it easier to secure the material children enjoy. However, they will have to practice to acquire the skills. The Internet is not going to do it for them."

Bansal's resource is growing, and he is seeking submissions from teachers at all levels. He encourages any teacher who has original math problems to share to contact him via email at [email protected]. The site respects copyright laws and does not infringe on the copyrighted content of others. Therefore, Bansal cannot accept submissions from textbooks.

MORE WORD PROBLEMS ON THE WEB

  • Classic Problems from the Dr. Math Archives
    This site highlights oldies but goodies in the field of mathematical word problems and explains how to solve them.
  • Ask Dr. Math
    Here you will find more word problems from Dr. Math, specially designed for elementary students.
  • Word Problems for Kids
    A Canadian site, Word Problems for Kids includes questions for grades 5 through 12. It also provides hints to help users as they work and answers to the problems.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2002 Education World

From the Ed World Library

Updated 10/21/2005