A Before-and-After Singapore Math Problem


A Singapore math primer for grades 4–6 students, teachers, and parents

In Model Drawing for Challenging Word Problems, one of the better Singapore math primers to have been written by a non-Singaporean author for an American audience in recent years, under “Whole Numbers,” Lorraine Walker exemplified the following before-and-after problem, as we commonly call it in Singapore.

Mary had served $117, but her sister Suzanne had saved only $36. After they both earned the same amount of money washing dishes one weekend, Mary noticed she had twice as much money as Suzanne. What was the combined total they earned by doing dishes?

The solution offered is as follows:


© 2010 Crystal Springs Books

The author shared that she did two things to make the model look much clearer:

• To add color in the “After” model;
• To slide the unit bars to the right.

This is fine if students have easy access to colored pens, and know which parts to shift, but in practice this may not always be too convenient or easy, especially if the question gets somewhat more complicated.Let me share a quick-and-dirty solution how most [elementary math] teachers and tutors in Singapore would most likely approach this before-and-after problem if they were in charge of a group of average or above-average grades 4–5 students.


From the model drawing,

1 unit = $117 – $36 = $81
1 unit – $36 = $81 – $36 = $45

2 × $45 = $90

They earned a total of $90 by doing dishes.

Analysis of the model method

Notice that the placement of the bars matters—whether a bar representing an unknown quantity is placed before or after another bar representing a known quantity.

In our model, had we placed the [shaded] bar representing the unknown unit on the right, it would have been harder to deduce the relationship straightaway; besides, no sliding or shifting is necessary. So, placing the bar correctly helps us to figure out the relationship between the unknown unit and the known quantities easier and faster.

In general, shading and dotting the bars are preferable to coloring and sliding them, especially when the problem gets harder, with more than two conditions being involved.

The Stack Method

This word problem also lends itself very well to the Stack Method. In fact, one can argue that it may even be a better method of solution than the bar model, especially among visually inclined below-average students.

Take a look at a quick-and-dirty stack solution below, which may look similar to the bar method, but conceptually they involve different thinking processes. To a novice, it may appear that the stack method is just the bar method being depicted vertically, but it’s not. Perhaps in this question, the contrast isn’t too obvious, but for harder problems, the stack method can be seen to be more advantageous, offering a more elegant solution than the traditional bar method.


From the stack model diagram, note that the difference $81(= $117 – $36) must stand for the extra unit belonging to Mary.

1 unit = $81
$36 + ▅ = $81
▅ = $81 – $36 = $45
2 ▅ = 2 × $45 = $90

So, they had a total of $90.

The Sakamoto Method

This before-and-after problem also lends itself pretty well to the Sakamoto method, if the students have already learned the topic on Ratio. Try it out!

Let me leave you with three practice questions I lifted up from a set of before-and-after grades 4–6 problems I plan to publish in a new title I’m currently working on, all of which encourage readers to apply both the bar and the stack methods (and the Sakamoto method, if they’re familiar with it) to solving them.


Use the model and the stack methods to solve these questions.

1. At first, Joseph had $900 and Ruth had $500. After buying the same watch, Joseph has now three times as much money as Ruth. How much did the watch cost?

2. Moses and Aaron went shopping with a total of $170. After Moses spent 3/7 of his money and Aaron spent $38, they had the same amount of money left. How much money had Aaron at first?

3. Paul and Ryan went on a holiday trip with a total of $280. After Paul had spent 4/7 of his money and Ryan had spent $52, the amount Paul had left was 1/4 of what Ryan had left. How much money did Ryan have at first?

1. $300 2. $86 3. $196

Walker, L. (2010). Model drawing for challenging word problems: Finding solutions the Singapore way. Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs Books.

© Yan Kow Cheong, August 4, 2013.

2 thoughts on “A Before-and-After Singapore Math Problem

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