they solve the second problem by counting a set of 4, adding in more as they count “five, six,” and then counting those added in to find the answer.
Children solve these problems by “acting out” the situation—that is, by modeling it. They invent a procedure that mirrors the actions or relationships described in the problem. This simple but powerful approach keeps procedural fluency closely connected to conceptual understanding and strategic competence. Children initially solve only those problems that they understand, that they can represent or model using physical objects, and that involve numbers within their counting range. Although this approach limits the kinds of problems with which children are successful, it also enables them to solve a remarkable range of problems, including those that involve multiplying and dividing.
Since children intuitively solve word problems by modeling the actions and relations described in them, it is important to distinguish among the different types of problems that can be represented by adding or subtracting, and among those represented by multiplying or dividing. One useful way of classifying problems is to heed the children’s approach and examine the actions and relations described. This examination produces a taxonomy of problem types distinguished by the solution method children use and provides a framework to explain the relative difficulty of problems.
Four basic classes of addition and subtraction problems can be identified: problems involving (a) joining, (b) separating, (c) part-part-whole relations, and (d) comparison relations. Problems within a class involve the same type of action or relation, but within each class several distinct types of problems can be identified depending on which quantity is the unknown (see Table 6–1). Students’ procedures for solving the entire array of addition and subtraction problems and the relative difficulty of the problems have been well documented.8
For multiplication and division, the simplest kinds of problems are grouping situations that involve three components: the number of sets, the number in each set, and the total number. For example:
Jose made 4 piles of marbles with 3 marbles in each pile. How many marbles did Jose have?
In this problem, the number and size of the sets is known and the total is unknown. There are two types of corresponding division situations depending on whether one must find the number of sets or the number in each set. For example: