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  • Writer's pictureJessica Kaminski

Visuals That Work for Word Problems

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Bar models are probably one of the most popular things people hear about when they research a Singapore-based math education. They may have seen some models used and are curious about how they help students make sense of word problems. As someone who didn't jump on the bar model band wagon willingly, I wanted to share my experience.

If you know my story, you know I loved math growing up. I loved the rules and the way things worked. However, in complete transparency, I had no idea what I was doing. I realize now that I was just following the procedures set in front of me. I was really good at memorizing and could just follow the steps to get an answer. I had no idea why that answer worked, but I had awesome grades.

Then, I began teaching and realized I couldn't break it down for my students. They would ask some great questions, and I did not know how to answer them. I began learning and studying all that I could, because I wanted to be there for my students.

One year, my principal decided we were going to start bar modeling. We were going to use this method to solve word problems. She sent me to my first training where I was a HORRIBLE participant. I just didn't see the point of solving using a bar model when I could use algebra. I feel so sorry for the presenter, because I was not an easy participant.

But I give her credit, because she made me a believer. She put a problem on the board that was really hard. I couldn't figure out how to use my rules to solve it. She drew a model and then, it totally made sense. The answer was obvious! She then explained it was a third grade problem, and my mind was blown! Third graders are solving these types of problems?! No way!

I realized the bar models were a great way to help students visualize and problem-solve. I also realized this was not a "math" issue but a "mindset" issue. Do I believe math is a series of following rules or a process to be understood? When I believed math was about following rules, bar models didn't make sense. If I believe that our ultimate goal is to become problem solvers, bar models are great visual tools to build a foundation of understanding of operations.

When we begin teaching these models in 2nd grade, we show students that one unit can represent a quantity. They move from one-to-one correspondence in Grade 1 to seeing that it's not always efficient to draw each one. Instead rectangles can be used to show a part-whole, comparison or equal groups relationship. Once I see the relationship, I can determine what operation to use.

Part of learning to use bar models is the ability to understand when to use each model. Reviewing the models can help students to think about the problems that can be asked with each model. That's where these bar model posters come in. Post these around the room and encourage students to consider when they should use each model. Encourage students to look at the model and create their own word problems. Ask students to reflect on which models they feel confident using.

If you need more support with bar models and word problems, don't forget to check out my two Problem Solving Handbooks. These books walk students through each model with concrete, pictorial and then abstract quantities. Each problem includes a video to help model the strategies and lead to mastery. There's also some great practice and challenge problems to extend our learners. You can grab them in the SHOP with digital, printable and teaching options.

In the meantime, begin exploring bar models with these posters and put them up in your classroom. Feel free to share your experience in the comments below!

Download your free bar model posters here:

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