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Remediating Math Disabilities
Q: What would you as a teacher do to help a student who has a mathematics disability (dyscalculia)? What types of activities, manipulatives, and strategies would be best to accommodate a student with this problem?
A: The best resource I know for teaching strategies for children with math disabilities is Bley and Thornton's book, Teaching Mathematics to the Learning Disabled. Children with dyscalculia can exhibit problems in math for many different reasons. You need to know what's getting in a child's way before you can create a treatment plan.
For example, some children have difficulties with the concepts of math and must use math manipulatives to work through their blocks to understanding. Others have trouble mastering math facts because of memory difficulties. These children may need distributed practice (short spurts spread out over time rather than long, intense practice sessions). They also may benefit from "chunking" math facts and tagging difficult facts (e.g., 6 x 8) to "anchor facts" (e.g., 5 x 8) that may be easier to learn. Still others may struggle with mastering steps to solutions (algorithms) and need reminders with sample problems to scaffold their understanding.
Finally, a small subgroup of children with math disabilities have severe visual-spatial organization difficulties. These children must use verbal supports to "talk themselves through" muddy concepts that they have trouble visualizing. For example, children with this kind of problem may have to remind themselves that a triangle has three flat sides. For these children, it's important to use words to accompany manipulative use so they can make the connection between what they are seeing and the concept or operation they are trying to learn. Bley and Thornton's book provides a wealth of suggestions for teaching children with math problems from the earliest grades to middle school.
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For more than 20 years, Eileen Marzola has worked with children and adults with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders, and with their parents and teachers. She has been a regular education classroom teacher, a consultant teacher/resource teacher, an educational evaluator/diagnostician, and has also taught graduate students at the university level. Marzola is an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She also maintains a private practice in the evaluation and teaching of children with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.