Key Words are Evil by Juli Dixon

People have told me they know I am giving a talk someplace in North America when a tweet comes across their feed indicating that #KeyWordsAreEvil. Why am I so adamant about spreading this message? For so many reasons, three of which I will attempt to clarify here. What follows is my list of the three most important reasons to avoid teaching key words to students and why these reasons made it to the list. But first, I should define what I mean when I use the term “key words.”

When I pontificate that “key words are evil” I am referring to everyday words and phrases such as, “altogether” and “how many more” that are taught to students as indicators of mathematical operations. I am not talking about mathematical vocabulary terms like “sum,”  “product,” or “quotient.”

Here are two examples of word problems that are often used to highlight key words:

Jessica has 8 key chains. Calvin has 9 key chains. How many key chains do they have all together?

Jessica has 8 key chains. Alex has 15 key chains. How many more key chains does Alex have than Jessica?

Focusing on “all together” and adding the two numerals in the first problem results in students who are rewarded with the correct answer.  Similarly, students who search for key words and find “how many more” and then subtract the lesser number from the greater number in the second problem are also rewarded.  However, what happens when students encounter problems like this:

Jessica has 8 key chains. How many more key chains does she need to have 13 key chains all together?

Students are at least as likely to focus on “all together” and add 8 and 13 as they are to identify “how many more” as the key words and subtract. When I share these examples, supporters of key word instruction are often quick to indicate that this is not an issue for them. They say that they use strategies with students to ensure that their students focus on the “right” key words. This is still problematic. I hope that my three reasons for classifying key words as evil will shed light on why teaching key words is so problematic.

Three Reasons for Classifying Key Words as Evil

  1. Teaching key words undermines our efforts to create students who are problem solvers.
  2. Teaching key words sends the message that mathematics doesn’t truly exist in the real world.
  3. Teaching key words is an equity and access issue.

Teaching key words undermines our efforts to create students who are problem solvers.

A goal of mathematics instruction is to develop students who can reason quantitatively. This should include making sense of problems and determining pathways to reach solutions to those problems. Teaching key words negates this focus by, in essence, instructing students to ignore the aspects of the problems that make them problematic and just providing tricks for students to follow to reach answers.

Teaching key words sends the message that mathematics doesn’t truly exist in the real world.

This second reason for avoiding key word instruction follows from the first. By teaching students that there is no need to make sense of problems that involve mathematics but rather to just find the key words and do what they imply, we are teaching students that mathematics is just a set of arbitrary rules to follow, not a lens through which to view the world. When we use mathematics to examine and make sense of our world we are reinforcing the value of becoming problem solvers.

Teaching key words is an equity and access issue.

Students who struggle with reading and/or mathematics are more likely to be taught to use key words to solve mathematics problems than their peers. The justification for this practice is obvious. They are struggling and key word instruction helps them to get more answers correct. However, my position is that this is not a good enough justification. This practice does more harm than good. When students are singled out for key word instruction their access to problem solving and mathematical reasoning is restricted. When this access is limited, there is less opportunity to develop perseverance. This is an issue of equity and it must be stopped.

What is your responsibility in eliminating key word instruction? First, stop! That is, if you are still using it. Next, help your peers to stop! Share this blog. Tweet about it! It is time to have collaborative and courageous conversations. If you still have a key word poster on your wall – or one that is even remotely close to being a key word poster – take it down! Rip it up! Better yet, take a video of yourself ripping it up and send it out in a tweet tagging me @thestrokeofluck. It is time for this change in instructional practice to trend J


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