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These questions were received during the LD@school webinar, The SLP in the Math Class – Empowering Math Learners Through Collaboration between Educators and Speech Language Pathologists; click here to view the webinar recording.

Answered by Sabrina O'Keefe, M.H.Sc., Speech Language Pathology

How can Speech-Language Pathologists Support Students with Learning Disabilities to Acquire Math Literacy Skills?

Regardless of location of service – school, private practice, children's treatment network – Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) can support a student's acquisition of math literacy skills. The first step is communication: with the student's teacher, with the school board SLP (if the client is being seen privately) and with the parents. Find out what topics are being covered in the student’s math class and align the language (e.g., vocabulary) and executive functioning goals with the curriculum.

Vocabulary instruction is often the “biggest bang for your buck” when it comes to supporting a student with a learning disability (LD) to acquire math literacy skills. A student with an LD requires 5 times more exposure to a new vocabulary term to really learn it (Oral Language At Your Fingertips: Kindergarten and the Primary Grades, 2014). If the SLP is working in a “pull-out” or “push-in” environment with the student, this extra time and practice with the vocabulary will be beneficial. Empowering the parents and families to carry-over the vocabulary work will also serve to support the student's need for extra opportunities with the vocabulary. The SLP can support the student to develop their own definitions of the math terms, using visuals and manipulatives. The language of math is often not part of a student's everyday vocabulary, so the student-derived definition will allow the learner to make the subject-specific vocabulary more interesting and accessible. The SLP can also use the student's own schoolwork to ensure their comprehension of the language and grammar in word problems and address challenges along the way, using material that is relevant to the student.

If the SLP is fortunate enough to be working in the math classroom, it is important to advocate to the principal and the school board’s chief SLP for the time to effectively plan and deliver a collaborative lesson. The ideal service delivery includes lessons that are co-planned and co-taught to the whole class by both professionals, and SLP-led small group pull-out sessions (Throneberg et al., 2000). Although not a part of many school SLP models of service, 1-1 opportunities with the SLP for those students who need more individualized attention would be the icing on the cake!

How does Executive Functioning Impact Math Learning for Students with Learning Disabilities and what can a Speech-Language Pathologist do to Help?

Executive functions are the groups of processes that allow us to respond flexibly to our environment and engage in deliberate, goal-directed, thought and action. Essentially, it is YOU being able to manage YOURSELF. The critical skills for the development of math proficiency are shifting (flexible thinking), impulsivity and inhibition (suppressing distracting information and unwanted responses) and working memory (monitoring and manipulating information in mind). The core deficit for language learning disabilities is working memory. The process that underlies working memory is attention. Consider that more than half of all children with ADHD have co-morbid learning disabilities and 60-80% of children with ADHD will also have co-morbid mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, oppositional defiance disorder, conduct disorder or sensory integration disorder (MentalHelp.net, n.d.) (Kars4Kids Smarter Parenting, n.d).

A Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) has specialized training to support deficits in executive functioning. In addition, a SLP is often a member of a team of regulated professionals (e.g., occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology) and can bring a multi-disciplinary lens to a client's math-learning needs. If a student is struggling with executive functioning, there is often a history of involvement with these other professionals, and a review of the Ontario Student Record (OSR) and conversation with the parents will be very helpful in implementing the strategies that will be specific to the needs of the student. In general, an SLP will be able to analyze the learning environment – including the amount and type of language used in the lesson – and work to support the student's attention, memory and processing needs. The SLP may support the student by developing an approach to addressing and (hopefully) solving the math problem. This may include a personal checklist to help manage multi-step problems. The SLP may also model self-talk (often a challenge for learners with LDs) to ensure that the student is analyzing, inhibiting information and applying critical thinking. The SLP may also support the student in advocating for their personal learning needs (e.g., a calculator, extra time, grid paper, coloured markers to highlight signal words, paper to help inhibit the visual information on the page, etc.)

Works cited:

“ADHD Comorbidity” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/adhd/and-comorbidity/?fbclid=IwAR0XFueMHB-suE0MPlWaNxY616VE-FKl2JFgGslNtzanC_qFGrHJpEr7jlE [Accessed 20 March 2019].

“Comorbidity and ADHD: It’s Not Just About ADHD” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.kars4kids.org/blog/disabilities-differences/add-adhd/comorbidity-adhd-not-just-adhd/ [Accessed 18 Mar. 2019].

Oral Language At Your Fingertips: Kindergarten and the Primary Grades, The Ontario Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, 2014. (pp. 38-39)

Throneberg R.N., Calvert L.K., Sturm J.J., Paramboukas A.A., Paul P.J. (2000) A Comparison of Service Delivery Models Effects on Curricular Vocabulary Skills in the School Setting. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology 9: 10 20.


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York/London: Guilford Press.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Omanson, R.C. (1987). The effects and uses of diverse vocabulary instructional techniques. In M.G. McKeown & M.E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 147-163). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Grenier, S. (2005).  Le développement de la connaissance lexicale et des habiletés de narration chez des élèves francophones et des élèves allophones de la maternelle. Mémoire présenté à la Faculté des études supérieures de l'Université Laval dans le cadre du Programme de maîtrise en linguistique pour l'obtention du grade de Maître ès arts (M.A.), Départment de langues, linguistique et traduction, Faculté des lettres, Université Laval, Québec.

Kame'enui, E.J. & Baumann, J.F. (Eds.). (2012) Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, (2nd Edition). The Guilford Press.

Photo of Sabrina O'Keefe

Sabrina O'Keefe is a Speech-Language Pathologist working in private practice in the Dufferin and Peel regions. She graduated from the University of Toronto and has seventeen years experience working in the field, supporting children and their families. For two years, Sabrina was on contract with Trillium Demonstration School, a specialized residential school program for students in grade 7 to 11, with severe learning disabilities. At Trillium, Sabrina collaborated with teachers to integrate speech and language goals into the classroom.