Teaching Math to Students with Disabilities

Dr. Paul Nolting, a noted specialist in math instruction and curriculum design, faculty member in the graduate program at the University of South Florida and in the Learning & Instruction Program at Manatee Community College, presented workshops in February 2002 for faculty from Buffalo State as well as area campuses on the topic, “Effective Strategies for Teaching Math to Students with Disabilities, Especially Learning Disabilities”. His research and publications have provided common-sense strategies to math faculty and tutors and have been adopted in part by those who train tutors and work with students whose math skills are undeveloped.

Nolting’s 15 Common Characteristics of Students with Learning Disabilities in Math

  1. Difficulty remembering the multiplication tables and other simple math facts that are usually memorized.
  2. Reversal of numbers, such as 54 for 45
  3. Mixing up of symbols and variables such as + and x, and b and d
  4. Errors in copying problems from the board and on homework steps.
  5. Homework problems look like “chicken scratch” – writing all over the paper, not following a visible sequence.
  6. Difficulty in recalling a sequence of problem-solving steps
  7. Difficulty recalling mathematical concepts
  8. Difficulty understanding mathematical concepts
  9. Difficulty applying mathematical concepts
  10. Fluid or abstract reasoning deficits
  11. Difficulty understanding word problems
  12. Demonstrates knowledge in the classroom but not on exams
  13. Unable to complete the exam in the allotted time, but what is done is correct, or nearly error-free
  14. Can verbally explain how to do a problem but cannot do it on an exam
  15. Make many careless errors on exams and not recognize them

Students may also have difficulty:

  • Solving two- or multiple-step problems
  • Applying mathematical concepts to word problems
  • Visually reading and plotting graphs
  • With an inability to take notes and follow the concepts in the lecture at the same time

Suggested faculty strategies:

  • Put an outline of the material to be covered on the board before class and check off what has been covered as the lecture proceeds.
  • Teach key words – the language of math is a new vocabulary, so have students make flash cards with examples of how to do procedures on the cards.
  • Give the students cues about how to take notes as they go along.
  • Embrace redundancy – build repetition into the concepts presented.
  • Conceptual density has an optimum level – don’t cram in too much information in a hurry. (A water-soaked sponge cannot absorb more water, no mater how much is poured over it.)
  • Avoid negative questions: students with LD’s may not “get” the message, and it adds to the sense they are stupid if everyone around them seems to understand the concept presented that way and they miss it.
  • Show all steps in multiple-part questions, even if it seems they should know the step sequence by now.
  • Include sample test questions or a similar format in the syllabus or online notes as well as samples of the most efficient answers.
  • Permit students who jumble the solutions into “chicken scratch” to use large-size graph paper, with one sign/number or other symbol per box. It is easier for them to see, line up, and keep straight the problems through to solution. Some may also do better typing the problems out on a computer instead of writing the answer out on paper with a pencil or pen.
  • Talk about how math is used, how concepts relate to their majors and to other disciplines: statistics, data collection, logic, quality control, profit/loss and mark-up, engineering and building codes. Too many students with disabilities have been taught to fear math.
  • For some students, use of colored chalk or overhead or white-board markers enhances the perception of the material – it also makes it more “fun” (see previous bullet).
  • Taping the lecture helps the student take the procedures and methods home so that incorrect or incomplete notes can be revised.
  • Encourage math study groups with partners – mix abilities in these groups.