# Key words aren’t the key to understanding math

Students in NYC recently finished taking the state math test. As a result, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks watching a lot of test prep going on in classrooms. One of the strategies I see being used over and over is the use of key words.

I admit that I was guilty of using this strategy when I started teaching. I was puzzled when my students could flawlessly perform computations but struggled with word problems. Teaching them to look for key words seemed like an easy fix to this. I had charts in my room listing all the key words and their corresponding operations. Yet, the key words didn’t seem to help them.

So why don’t key words work?

It’s because they don’t allow students to use what they already know to make sense of a situation.

The research backs this up. Drake and Barlow (2007) gave a student the problem below.

There are 3 boxes of chicken nuggets on the table. Each box contains 6 chicken nuggets. How many chicken nuggets are there in all?

Guess what a student who looked for key words answered? 9 chicken nuggets. The student saw the words: “in all” as a signal to add 6 and 3. I would bet that the student could have made sense of this situation and arrived at the correct answer if he drew a picture or reasoned about it. However, using key words led him to an incorrect answer.

Key words encourage students to take a short cut instead of making sense of a situation. If students think about what makes sense, they don’t need shortcuts or key words. They don’t need to worry about what happens when they aren’t any key words or when there are multiple key words in a story.

If we believe that doing mathematics should have meaning for students and make sense to them, then teaching key words doesn’t support those goals. Teaching students to reason about a situation and know why they are performing an operation does.

Have you used key words with your students? What was your experience?

Drake, J. M., & Barlow, A. T. (2007). Assessing Students’ Levels of Understanding Multiplication through Problem Writing. Teaching Children Mathematics, 14(5), 272-277.