Activation of Real-World Knowledge in the Solution of Word Problems

Ruth Baranes, James W. Stigler, Michelle Perry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article describes two studies that examine factors influencing children’s access to real-world knowledge during the solution of word problems. in the first study, based on work in Brazil by Carraher, Carraher, and Schliemann (1987), children were asked to solve arithmetic problems presented in three contexts: (a) as word problems, (b) in simulated store situations, and (c) as symbolic computations. Brazilian children were both more successful and more likely to use mental, informal strategies when solving word problems than when solving symbolic computations. We did not find the same results with our U.S. sample; no effects of context were found in either strategy use or success. Comparison of U.S. and Brazilian children’s responses suggested that children may tend to access real-world content when the numbers in a word problem match the problem content, and a second study was conducted to test this interpretation. Children were presented with word problems in which the problem content either matched or did not match the numbers in the problem. It was found that when the numbers matched the problem content, children were more successful in solving the problems and more likely to access their domain knowledge during problem solution, as evidenced by the strategies they used to solve problems in the matched condition. These findings suggest ways in which activation of real-world knowledge might be facilitated during the solution of word problems in school.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)287-318
Number of pages32
JournalCognition and Instruction
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1989
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • General Psychology


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