Word problems terrify beginning algebra students. Their lament can be heard all across the globe, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are among the first signals aliens receive from planet Earth. Students wonder why they have to learn these difficult problems. Let me tell you then that not only are they important, you probably do them on a daily basis and do not realize it.

For many people, that is like telling them that, on a daily basis, they uproot trees with their bare hands. Not possible! Oh, but it is. You need to get to work on time, but you’re staying over at a friend’s (I won’t ask why.), and you have no idea how long it will take you to get to work. You look at the clock, you ask your friend how far it is to your employers.’ He or she tells you, “35 miles.” You’re in a residential area, the speed limit is 25 mph, and you are a law abiding citizen. You always go the speed limit (heh). You have to be there at 9:00AM. It is now 7:30AM. You relax. You realize you have time. Now, how did you do that?

Without knowing it, you applied the algebraic formula: D=rt. (Distance equals rate multiplied by time.) You knew that the distance was 35 miles, your rate would be 25 mph, and you rearranged the formula, by the rules of algebra, to t=d/r. You then divided the distance by the rate, and realized that it would take an hour and twenty-four minutes to get then and you had an hour and a half. Since you’ve done this thousands of times, you did it so lightning fast, you didn’t even know you did it.

You see how easy word problems are? You’ve done them all your life without knowing it. You’re like the man in the Moliere story who didn’t realize that he was speaking prose all his life.

Writing prose. That comes next. You’ve mastered a word problem, right? You can do anything.

Go ahead. Uproot that tree with your bare hands. I dare you.