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Turning Word Problems into Equations

Date: 04/15/2002 at 14:14:07
From: Amanda Beasley
Subject: Math

Dear Doctor Math, 

Algebra is sometimes hard for me and the thing I hate most about Math 
is word problems. I don't like turning word problems into equations 
because it is too confusing. Is there a certain technique that might 
help me out?

Thanks a lot,
Amanda Beasley

Date: 04/15/2002 at 14:59:47
From: Doctor Ian
Subject: Re: Math

Hi Amanda,

It _can_ be confusing turning problems into equations, but the
interesting thing is that once you've done that, it's usually _less_ 
confusing to work with the equations than to try to work with the 
words directly.

In fact, the whole _point_ of converting things to equations is that 
once you know that a certain trick works on a certain kind of 
equation, you can use that same trick no matter _what_ kind of story 
led to the equation. It doesn't matter if it's a story about mowing 
lawns, or the ages of some family members, or a boat going across a 
river, or two guys painting a house.

In fact, that's one of the things that makes math so powerful. Because 
everyone uses the same representation, if somebody in Berlin comes up 
with a trick to help her solve a problem that comes up while trying to 
build a bridge, somebody else in San Francisco can use that same trick 
to help him solve a problem about loading and unloading ships.  

You can find some tips on doing the translations at

   Algebraic Sentences 

and in the Dr. Math FAQ:

   Word Problems 

But getting good at this is more a matter of practice than anything 
else, and getting enough practice is often just a matter of convincing 
yourself that the practice is going to be worth your while. 

I hope this helps.  Write back if you'd like to talk more
about this, or anything else.

- Doctor Ian, The Math Forum 
Associated Topics:
Middle School Algebra
Middle School Word Problems

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