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Homeschooling a Child with a Nonverbal Learning Disability | Part 1: Math

Joyce Blankenship Joyce Blankenship

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by Joyce Blankenship
HSLDA Struggling Learner Consultant

I recently spoke with a parent who was giving me some feedback on our June newsletter, in which we introduced you to the world of the children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NLD).

As I learned from this mom, although that article was beneficial in helping her to understand her child and the challenges she faced, she had more questions. “How do I teach my child math or handwriting?” she asked. “What are the best types of resources to use to help my child understand what she reads?”

I realized what this mom needed, and perhaps what many of you need: practical tools and guidance so that she could be successful in teaching her child with NLD at home.

Over the next three newsletters, we will focus on practical educational interventions that parents have found to be helpful for kids with NLD. These strategies will be broken down into three main academic areas: math, reading comprehension, and handwriting.

(Keep in mind that any of these teaching methods and resources can be used for students who may not have been diagnosed with NLD but nevertheless exhibit some of the same learning patterns.)

Harnessing Strengths to Overcome Weaknesses

Math is often taught through part-to-whole picture concepts, thus involving significant right brain activity. For example, addition is a mental operation of “seeing” sets of things put together. The ability to visualize, however, is an area of weakness in a child with NLD, so these kids often experience agony when learning mathematics.

In elementary school, kids with NLD can struggle with the spatial demands of lining up numbers and putting them in columns. They may confuse the meanings of math signs. They may also over-rely on rote memory by memorizing math facts and rules without grasping the why of math. As they mature, they have difficulty understanding fractions, decimals, visual word problems, and geometric concepts of size and shape.

So how can you help your child or teen with NLD improve his or her understanding of math? Here are some suggestions.

  • Verbal processing: Harness your child’s verbal strength by talking through math concepts and problems. Encourage your student to articulate his thoughts at every state of any math problem by asking, “What are you thinking about right now?”
  • Reasoning: Teach your child strategies for reasoning through math problems, and avoid methods that rely too much on memorizing.
  • Place value: To teach the meaning of place value, use simple manipulatives such as popsicle sticks and rubber bands to group the sticks together to illustrate 1s, 10s, and 100s while verbally explaining how place value works. Then practice writing the numbers on a place value chart. Allow your student to use graph paper with large squares to line up problems.
  • Language: Make sure to explain the language of math. Take time to explain mathematical terms and broaden your student’s math vocabulary by using synonyms for basic arithmetic operations. For addition, you might regularly use synonyms such as plus, sum, more than, and increase.
  • Math problems: When solving math problems, show a model of how to solve the problem, explain verbally what to do, and give lots of practice in solving examples. Put up posters displaying examples of math processes that your student can refer to when needed. Ask questions which involve active thinking, such as: “When you multiply, should your answer be larger or smaller than the number you started with?”
  • Manipulatives: Use well-designed manipulatives that are not visually overwhelming. Encourage your child to use the manipulatives as a basis for creating pictures in the mind. Use explicit verbal explanations to teach your child how to use the manipulative for the concept being learned. Some good manipulatives include Cuisenaire rods, fraction overlays, plastic clocks, and 3D geometric solids.
  • Estimating: Teach students how to estimate, as they are prone to make wild guesses when answering problems. Let them check with a calculator. Encourage them to think, “Does this answer make sense?”
  • Art in math? Let your student use clay or Play-Doh to make models of math concepts, and then verbally discuss these concepts. This works very well to help student visualize geometry concepts. For example, when learning about parallel and perpendicular lines, you might have the student make a model of a set of parallel lines, and ask her to move the lines to turn them into perpendicular lines.
  • Dimensions: Help your student visualize concepts in both two and three dimensions. For example, when teaching volume of a rectangle, have your student measure the length, width, and height of a cereal box. After explaining in words how to calculate the volume, have your student draw the cereal box showing measurements and volume.

We hope you find these ideas beneficial as you help your children gain a deeper understanding of math concepts. Keep an eye out for next month’s newsletter, where we’ll cover a second main academic area that children with NLD struggle with: reading comprehension.

Math Resources for Children with NLD

On Cloud Nine: Designed to go along with the Visualizing and Verbalizing program, this program develops the ability to image and verbalize math concepts and processes.

Key to … math curriculum: This is a series of workbooks that focus on one math concept at a time; pages are black and white and visually uncluttered.

Ronit Bird math materials: Ronit believes that we should be teaching for understanding in a hands-on multisensory way, not through rote-learning. Her books stress working with concrete and visual materials in order to explore numbers and the relationships between numbers.

Games for Math: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn Math, From Kindergarten to Third Grade by Peggy Kaye: This book contains short lessons to build fundamental math concepts using fun games and activities.

It’s Elementary by M.J. Owen: This reliable method for analyzing and solving math word problems teaches students to identify key words, draw pictures, and disregard unnecessary information. It covers addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.


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