Answered by Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger
There is a lot of information about identifying learning disabilities in mathematics. However, information about strategies and ideas for working with these disabilities is limited. What strategies work?
First, it is important to remember that learning disabilities in the area of math (sometimes called dyscalculia) can manifest in a number of different ways and that there is no one solution that applies to all manifestations. Before employing any strategies, analyse several of the student’s outputs and conduct a metacognitive interview with him or her. Here are a number of principles for working with students who have major difficulties with math.
Tip Number 1: Reduce their anxiety around math
Students with learning disabilities in math often have low self-esteem and feel anxiety around math. There are a number of subtle ways in which educators can create a calmer, safer learning environment. For example, avoid surprise tests and quizzes; do not post student marks; make it safe to make mistakes; and develop trust with students. Another way to reduce the anxiety of these students is to model positive affirmations, e.g., “go one step at a time”, “I can calm down”, etc.
Tip Number 2: Reduce language-related obstacles
Some students will systematically encounter difficulties when a problem is expressed in the form of statements. Educators can come to their aid in a variety of ways. They can ensure that students understand complex vocabulary (e.g., dormer window, trampoline or springboard or revolution) or they can provide illustrations. They can teach the terms used to describe various operations systematically (add, sum, withdraw, deduct, less, separate, etc.) or synonyms (surface, area, floor, coverage, etc.). Educators can also support students with LDs in their comprehension by summarizing aloud or by reading aloud.
Tip Number 3: Use a variety of different forms of representation
Students with learning disabilities in math may have persistent difficulty understanding visual-spatial relationships; educators can offer them a variety of forms of representation. Providing examples orally is rarely enough to enable these students to form clear mental images. Students can gradually develop representation when given opportunities to manipulate materials. For example, for geometry, use three-dimensional solid objects and build two-dimensional objects out of cardboard. Manipulating beads, blocks, straws, and materials designed for teaching fractions will help these students.
For some students with LDs, learning math facts by rote is extremely difficult. Allow students to use tables, and even a calculator, as a way to ease their cognitive load and provide them with opportunities to learn in other ways. Lastly, these students benefit from pages with uncluttered layouts, graph paper, and sheets of paper with visual cues (time or space). These will help them to represent a situation.
Tip Number 4: Provide feedback promptly
When learning, students draw on many different forms of knowledge and processes; however, unless they receive feedback quickly, they may have difficulty managing the process and staying motivated.
First, when teaching new mathematical concepts that a student with LDs may find destabilizing, such as dividing a whole number by a fraction smaller than 1, educators can plan the lesson in such a way that they spend time near that student. The educator can create an atmosphere of trust and support the student in this new learning.
When consolidating learning, if the educator is unable to provide feedback promptly, he or she may team the student up with a high-performing student; make the correct answers available (either hard copy or electronic); or use exercises on a computer that provide immediate feedback (spreadsheet, online exercises, websites on mathematics).
To learn more about other strategies for supporting students with LDs in math, click here to read the article Evidence-Based Interventions for Students with Math Disabilities: one Size Does Not Fit All.
Tip Number 5: Understanding mistakes
Most students try to avoid making mistakes at any cost; this is equally true of students with LDs in mathematics. As soon as they make a mistake, they quickly erase it and write down the correct answer. All too often, however, they do not understand or take the time to understand why their answer was different. And sometimes their answer is correct—just different! Educators can use the mistakes their students make. First, they can use them to shed light on misconceptions and inadequate processes. Second, they can model metacognitive strategies that are very useful for working independently.
Nathalie Paquet-Bélanger is the French Learning Disabilities Consultant of the LD@school team. She is completing a Masters degree in education science at the University of Quebec at Rimouski. She holds a bachelor degree in special education from the same university and a certificate in ICT integration in education (TELUQ). She is also a sessional instructor for the integration of ICT in education at the UQAR. Her current position is special teacher at the Charlesbourg Public Secondary School where she enjoys working with teenagers and a diversity of learning difficulties. Nathalie is glad to bring her contribution and expertise to the LD@school team and to network with teachers sharing the same passion for the success of students with learning disabilities.