The “Word Problem” Problem

Math with Bad Drawings

Or, How to Avoid Thinking in Math Class, Part 4
(See Also Parts 1, 2, and 3)


This speaks more to my naiveté as a first-year teacher than anything else, but I was shocked to find how fervently my students despised the things they called “word problems.”

“I hate these! What is this, an English lesson?”

“Can’t we do regular math?”

“Why are there words in math class?”

Their chorus: I’m okay with math, except word problems.

They treated “word problems” as some exotic and poisonous breed. These had nothing to do with the main thrust of mathematics, which was apparently to chug through computations and arrive at clean numerical solutions.

I was mystified—which is to say, clueless. Why all this word-problem hatred?

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Mathematics, English, and I

English has always been my forte since elementary school. Hell, since I was in kindergarten. Let me tell you a story first, alright?

When I was little, the whole family speak English except of me and my big sister (obviously) teased me about my inability to speak that particular language. I mean, I was born to a multilingual family; my parents speak to each other in Javanese, we all communicate with Indonesian, and to the outside world we sometimes use Sundanese and when my paternal grandfather is around, my dad would mix up some Chinese words with Indonesian and Javanese. I understood all if not some of them (except Chinese. I’m really bad at it. I don’t even know how to read my Chinese name.) but I was still rubbish at English. (Not that I’m excellent at it either right now, but I can say I am way better.) So yes, that drives me to learn this foreign language.

At one point in my life, I was better in another language (Japanese) than English and actually had started to implement it in my real life, but then I found American tv shows.

So I started to watch them, and another, and another, until I was very accustomed to hearing English. Yes, I’ve watched several English-speaking tv shows and movies before, but that was because I followed my siblings and/or parents. This time I chose the shows and movies on my own.


And then I started to interact with people online in English. Albeit rubbish, people understand what I wanted to say, which is a good thing. So I kept on going and going until I was quite good at it, and I actually speak English daily (or rather type in English daily). I would’ve loved a native speaker as a partner, but my current friends are enough for me right now.

(PS: any native volunteers?)

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