A Stitch In Time Saves Nine

Number literacy begins as early as kindergarten. Kids sing and dance while learning numbers. Trust me, everything seems blissfully easy and fun at that stage of life for most kids. I remember singing this rhyme with actions “One two buckle my shoe, three four shut the door…”. I also remember learning this lovely rhyme “ Ondu eradu balale haradu” when I learnt numbers in Kannada, probably in grade 1.

This is the reality for most Indian school kids going to an English medium school.  They have the advantage of knowing a minimum of two languages (their mother tongue and English), and sometimes more depending on which state of India they reside in and the government and board rules and regulations.

You must be surprised as to why I jumped from “Number literacy” to “Language learning”. I have a valid reason for that and I will come to that soon.

For children, during their early childhood period, the primary focus is on learning to speak and understand their mother tongue at home. Later on, when the children start schooling it shifts to acquiring the English language which happens to be “THE” medium of education in private schools. This requires significant support from both schools as well as home, otherwise, children will find it very difficult to learn the new language and use it fluently.

Lately, we have had a couple of engagements at our NumberNagar® centre, where parents have come to us seeking help for their kids for Maths but ended up taking English lessons in addition to Maths.

In most of these engagements, kids fared reasonably well in Maths when the problems were straightforward and had limited instructions in words as opposed to the “WORD PROBLEMS” which were language intensive.

Role of language in doing well in Maths

We have found that there are typically two kinds when it comes to kids who have issues solving word problems. One set has reading difficulty meaning they are unable to read the problem itself, let alone solve it. The other kind is those who are able to read the problem but are unable to comprehend it.

So you see, why language plays a key role in doing well in Maths. The ability to read and comprehend becomes one of the key requirements to do well in Maths.

Take for example “I have 30 candies more than my sister and my sister has 10 candies lesser than her friend Ramya, who has 50 candies.” Ideally solving this problem involves simple subtraction and addition operations. That’s all. But just imagine the plight of those kids who cannot read or comprehend the meaning of this problem, it is as good as Greek and Latin to them.

Do you recollect ordering numbers in “ascending or descending” order? I had simply by-hearted the words and mentally connected them to, small to big and big to small respectively. Little did I know that “ascending” meant to climb up and similarly descending meant to move downward. Understanding the meaning and using the words in its right context actually helps learn better is what I feel.

Believe me, kids feel more burdened as word problems will become more and more complex as the grade level increases. Beware this kind of spread to other subjects too.

Learning Difficulties

In order to tackle such problems, parents must focus on helping the children become fluent in English so that language does not become a barrier to learn other subjects.

Here are a few key math terminologies if understood well will help in solving the word problems more easily.  Teachers and parents must focus on these words. The set of words is taken from an article titled “Reading and understanding written Math problems” by Brenda Krick- Morales published on readingrockets.org

Addition +Subtraction –
total of
added to
less than
fewer than
take away
more than
Multiplication xDivision ÷
product of
divided by
quotient of
percent (divided by 100)
out of
ratio of

At NumberNagar® we act out the word problems using some of the manipulatives or elements (Number tablets, magnets, cubes, puppets, etc.). This way children can understand and make mental representations of such problems more easily.

All I can say is that the parents and teachers must identify any such issue with children early on so that the problem can be resolved when it is still small.

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Aruna Shankar

Aruna is passionate about design and research in education. She is innovative and has designed creative educational products for children to acquire English language skills. She advocates play way method for teaching or learning. She drives immense pleasure in teaching both children and teachers alike. She believes that teaching profession gives one an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. She is a Computer Science engineer from BIT, Bengaluru. She holds a master’s degree in Psychology specialising in Human resources development and management from Christ University. She has also acquired professional training in interior design. She is an NLP practitioner. She has been selected for the 10,000 Women Entrepreneur Program, at IIMB (Indian Institute of Management Bengaluru), supported by Goldman Sachs. She has learnt Bharatanatyam. She loves to play the Veena and enjoys sketching during her spare time. She believes in fitness and enjoys running and swimming.

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