Teaching Basic Number Sense & Place Value to Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Students with learning disabilities sometimes struggle with fundamental concepts in mathematics. This lesson will help you understand what it means to teach number sense and place value to students with learning disabilities.

Math and the Student With Learning Disabilities

For the past decade or so, Ms. Carson has been working on how she works with students with learning disabilities. In her first grade classroom, she almost always has three or four students with diagnosed learning disabilities, and she has a deep understanding of the ways they can struggle in school. While she has become adept at helping these students learn to read and write, she realizes that she does not have as strong an understanding of their struggles in mathematics.

Ms. Carson's mentor tells her this is typical; many teachers associate learning disabilities with language and literacy struggles, but few understand the ways that learning disabilities can also impact numeracy, or students' awareness of and ability to work with numbers.

How Learning Disabilities Impact Number Sense and Place Value

Ms. Carson learns that there are many different ways that learning disabilities can impact mathematicians in the primary grades, most commonly with a detriment to their capacity to develop number sense, or an understanding of what numbers mean and how they are related to each other. Learning disabilities can also affect students' ability to understand place value, or what each digit in a number actually represents.

  • Struggles with Symbolization

Some students with learning disabilities struggle at the level of symbolization. This means that when they hear a number, they cannot automatically understand what it represents in terms of a quantity. They will have a hard time representing numbers even when given the opportunity to use pictures.

  • Visual and Spatial Confusion

Students with learning disabilities can also have problems with visual and spatial tasks. This can make it hard for them to organize their math work on a page and keep track of different numbers. These students might get confused when they look at a double-digit number and not be able to see or picture what each number represents.

  • Difficulties with Memory

Many students with learning disabilities struggle with memory. This can make it hard for them to memorize the basic math facts that they need to develop a more sophisticated number sense and intuitive understanding of how place value works in context.

  • Language-Embedded Mathematics

Finally, many students with learning disabilities have a hard time with any mathematical tasks that are language-embedded, or couched in words and phrases. This means that they will struggle with numbers and story problems that are written out and even spoken problems that include large amounts of language.

What to Do

Now that Ms. Carson understands how learning disabilities can impact her primary students' math, she focuses on the strategies she can use to help them along.

  • Manipulatives

Ms. Carson learns that students with learning disabilities should always have access to manipulatives like snap cubes, base-ten blocks, and color tiles. These tools offer concrete representations of number for students who are unable to symbolize or visualize them independently and they also allow students to practice their computation strategies even as their number sense is still developing.

  • Fingers

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