Teaching Math to Students with Learning Disabilities

Teaching math to students who have learning disabilities can be a rewarding challenge. Many of your students will have struggled with math for several years and will be delighted if math suddenly clicks for them. Here are a few strategies to help you successfully teach this population.

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Teaching Learning-Disabled Students

Types of Learning Disabilities

  • Dyslexia - difficulty reading and interpreting letters
  • Dysgraphia - problems with writing
  • Dyscalculia - learning disorders related only to math

A student may have only one of these disorders, or they may have more. Many strategies for teaching math are useful for children with any of these learning disabilities, as well as for children who may struggle with math because they are developing more slowly.

Teaching Number Sense

'Number sense' can be defined as understanding numbers and how they relate to one another. It's perhaps the most basic concept you can teach math students. Students with learning disorders generally have less number sense than other students. Three ways to improve number sense are:

Concrete Objects
Have students count every concrete object you can imagine, in the classroom and elsewhere - fingers, chairs in the room, toothpicks, trees, insects - everything!
Teach each math skill over and over until the child masters it. Model the process for them. Repeat counting or addition tables with students if they have made an error when saying the tables alone. Create opportunities for students to figure out problems, such as, 'I want to give everyone in row one three counting sticks. How many do we need to take from the box?'
Help students become thoroughly familiar with the 'language' of math. Tie every math symbol and term to examples of how they are used. Use books, calendars, graphs from magazines or newspapers, maps, house plans - anything! Have math conversations with the students at every opportunity, using words that they are learning. Be sure they understand the meaning of math terms. For instance, 'and' tells you to add and 'groups of' tells you to multiply.

Teaching Strategies

Students with learning disabilities need to be taught problem-solving strategies. These students may find it difficult to know how to begin working on a math problem, how to make decisions and how to complete a plan of action. Explicitly teach methods to approach all of these problems to give the student a plan that details what steps to take and in what order.

One strategy for word problems is the first-letter mnemonic STAR:

  • Search the problem
  • Translate the problem into a picture
  • Answer the problem
  • Review the solution

Students can make up their own mnemonics. Sentences may be easier for them to create than words. One example is 'Uncles Desire Corny Laughs' for the following problem-solving steps:

  • Understand the problem
  • Develop a plan to find the answer
  • Carry out that plan
  • Look back to see if the answer truly solves the problem

Teaching Strategically

The sequence of strategies used in teaching learning-disabled students makes a huge difference in helping these students catch on to a new math fact. Begin with concrete, 3-dimensional manipulative objects, such as tiles or blocks. Once children can easily demonstrate a math fact with a variety of manipulatives, move to 2-dimensional drawings (using squares, triangles, etc.) and pictures. When the children can come up with their own drawings, you can move on to using numbers and math symbols.

The more ways you can present and illustrate math facts, the more likely you are to offer something helpful for every student. Use manipulatives, stories, poems, pictures, music (both to sing and to listen to), physical activities and games. Practicing and drilling are still important. Even learning-disabled students will benefit from using flash cards and speed drills; help them to compete with themselves rather than other students.

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