Recently I had an aha! moment that connected, I believe, with why so many students in middle school and high school have difficulty getting meaning from written directions.

My challenge in this blog is to connect that aha moment with algebra. Here goes.

My aha was partially birthed in several elementary classrooms in which I was a substitute teacher recently. In the early elementary grades (1st through 3rd or even 4th grade), it’s understandable that kids have some degree of challenge understanding what the written directions both say and mean.

During several substitute teaching assignments, quite a few 2nd or 3rd graders kept saying to me about the written directions on a worksheet (or quiz or test), “I don’t get it.”

I found myself defaulting to the tried and true strategy of re-wording what the directions meant – “Kids, what it means is…”

No doubt my re-worded explanation was brilliant. No doubt it helped some to many kids, of course.

But as I pondered what had just happened, I began to think about some things that were really going on here when I orally re-worded the written directions.

One element that was present was I was subtly teaching kids that they didn’t have to pay attention to the written directions! Why pay attention to what the words say – why learn to decode the meaning of the written directions at all – when the teacher is just going to step in (sooner or later) and say, “What this means is…”

That inference is not a good thing for kids to learn.

So I tried taking a different approach the next time students told me they didn’t understand the written directions: I was going to “drag them through” the exact wording of the written directions.

What this meant was examining how the directions were structured:

• We examined the verbs, especially command verbs like underline, draw, explain, solve, simplify, group, match, etc. Along the way we happened upon the distinction between an action verb like explain and a stative verb like is or were.

• We pinpointed the subject and object of the verbs – which often were the nouns and pronouns of the directions. Write a fraction that is equivalent to the percentDescribe the similarities and differences between… Simplify the improper fraction and then change it to a mixed number.

• I pointed out how common it is to see prepositional phrases that contain nouns (like the capital of the country) – but how that noun country isn’t the subject of the sentence.

In other words, I gave a grammar lesson from the directions. Whether the subject matter was English or history or math or science – it didn’t matter.

We focused on getting meaning from written directions by “dragging ourselves through the English of the written directions” – without re-wording those written directions (at least at first).

Of course, providing synonyms for certain words is helpful at times. It’s unavoidable and part of language. But I didn’t end at the synonym. I always went back to the exact wording of the directions to ensure that students were getting meaning from that exact wording.

Several students summarized an important truth about certain kinds of problems in saying, “The hardest part about problem solving in math isn’t the numbers. It’s the English.”

Getting meaning from written directions – a lifelong skill. A skill we can help our kids develop. Such kids become better learners, more self-reliant learners, more capable problem-solvers.

Drag kids through the exact wording of written directions. It’s the educational equivalent of a well-known adage that I’m revising here: Give a child the decoded meaning of the written directions and you provide help for today. Teach a child how to decode written directions and you provide help for a lifetime.