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October 2015 Newsletter

Help for the Math Struggle

Krisa Winn Krisa Winn

By Krisa Winn
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tired. As she described her worries over her child’s academics, she said, “And math … well, math is a struggle.” Her discouragement came through loud and clear.

Can you relate to this mom? Does the mere mention of math prompt groaning and tears at your house? In this newsletter I want to share some teaching strategies, ideas, and resources that will equip and encourage you as you help your struggling learner tackle math.

Basic Teaching Strategies

Modeling—Provide a physical demonstration of what you want your child to do using, for example, manipulatives such as counter blocks. For instance, when modeling a division problem you might say, “OK, 5 will not go into 1, but 5 will go into 15, 3 times. So, 15 divided by 5 equals 3.” Modeling is made even more powerful when you talk out loud as you work through the math problem.

Guided Practice—Work through several problems alongside your children to make certain that they have a good grasp on the skill before they work independently. This allows you to check for understanding and address areas that are confusing or difficult for your child. Even if your student is using a computer program, you may need to provide additional modeling and guided practice.

Gradual Release—As you work closely with your child, you will begin to recognize where he or she needs extra support. This support could come in many forms, such as the use of manipulatives, prompts from you, or the use of educational tools such as a number line, for instance. As your student begins to master the presented skill, you gradually take away some of the supports.

Why is this important? Well, not much is gained by completing work that is too easy or by attempting work that is too difficult. As educators, we need to find that “sweet spot” that’s not too easy and not too hard.

Patience—Give your student time to process what’s being asked. Sometimes, we think that an answer should come much more quickly than our student can produce it. We mistake a pause or no response for “not knowing or remembering” when in actuality it is just taking longer for the student to pull that information out of storage—possibly due to slow processing.

In our attempt to help, we start giving clues or encouragement, which only clutters the student’s mind with more information to sort through. Try being quiet for just a moment longer the next time you review math facts with your child or ask a math-related question that needs an oral response. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it could make a big difference for your child.

Multisensory Approach—An especially effective teaching method is to use more than one modality at a time. Children listen and touch, or move, look, and touch, for example. The following are a few of the companies that employ multisensory strategies in their math programs. There are many other excellent choices available to homeschoolers.

Beyond Basic Teaching Strategies

Make Connections From the Known to the Unknown—This is a great strategy for teaching math concepts. Programs such as Right Start Math and Dreambox Learning use this approach when they spend time familiarizing students with an abacus. Students internalize what 5 looks like on the abacus, what 10 looks like, and so on. These programs then use that knowledge to teach addition and subtraction facts and other math skills.

Why is this helpful? Let’s use the example of addition. Most traditional math programs introduce addition by having students count objects in groups. This can present a problem for children who have poor working memory, attention, and processing problems. By the time they’ve counted out the stars or butterflies for a particular problem, they may have forgotten the reason for doing all that counting.

For the student who has internalized what 5+5 looks like on an abacus, however, the need to start counting at 1 is eliminated. Instead of counting they might say what they see in their mind’s eye: “5 yellow beads plus 5 blue beads—that’s the whole row of beads, so the answer is 10.”

Move from Verbal and Kinesthetic Modalities to Written Expression—For many years, educators have acknowledged the importance of movement in learning. However, Christopher Woodin, a specialist in mathematics and learning disabilities, utilizes kinesthetic learning in ways that go beyond reviewing multiplication facts while doing jumping jacks.

For instance, when he teaches multiplication by 5s he uses the face of a clock. He spends time explicitly teaching the position of each number on the clock. First, he has his students physically move their arms to the 3 o’clock position, 9 o’clock position and so on. Next, he has them verbalize the position of their arms. Later, students label various hand positions on a graphic organizer that represents the clock. Finally, the students move to writing actual math equations on paper: 3x5=15.

This is a powerful strategy for students who have difficulty with organizational skills and who need to be taught using kinesthetic and visual modalities. Woodin believes it is important for students who have processing difficulties to literally walk and talk themselves through problems. While students engage in these active and fun activities, they are developing what Woodin describes as internal language skills or an “inner voice” that will help students with new problems in the future. (You can learn more about Woodin Math online.)

Talk it Out—Language plays a role in math? Why yes! The act of actually talking while doing helps to develop an inner voice that many struggling learners do not have. But talking about math also helps to develop logical reasoning.

In the book Family Math by Stenmark, Cossey, and Thompson, the authors point out, “Children clarify and strengthen their reasoning abilities by talking about strategies. The home is an ideal place for children to practice explaining how they think they think . By talking it out, a child becomes conscious of a strategy that can then be used in other situations.”

More Resources and Tips to Consider

Right Brain Learning Tools—For the visual learner, seeing a concept in picture form really does help to make information “stick” because images are imprinted on the right side of the brain where long-term memory is stored. For resources that are helpful to the visual learner check out the following:

  • Lonestar Learning offers flashcards that look like what they mean.
  • Child Diagnostics—Dianne Craft has created math visuals that have funny stories connected to them. Humor can also help information stick.

For students with visual issues

  • Color code operation symbols
  • Provide a large work space
  • Provide visually uncluttered worksheets to help with fine motor and organization difficulties
  • Allow the use graph paper
  • Color code columns (within problems)
  • Color code columns and/or rows of math problems
  • Fold paper in columns so that less problems are seen at once
  • Scan worksheet and complete using a computer keyboard
  • Reduce amount of copying

In conclusion, take the time to think about the teaching strategies you are currently using during math instruction. Are there some ways to incorporate more kinesthetic learning activities? Are you providing enough guided practice? Do you encourage your child to talk about what he’s thinking as he is working through a math problem? Are there some ways to connect the known to the unknown? My hope is that the strategies presented here will equip your student to overcome difficulties with math.


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