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Teaching Computational Skills to Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Heather Turner

Heather has taught for 10 years as a lead special education teacher and Educational Diagnostician for a district. She has a doctorate in Curriculum Studies.

As many as 7% of students have a math learning disability, which can impact how they compute math problems. This lesson highlights computational strategies for students with learning disabilities.

Learning Disabilities & Computation

Mrs. Smith is a new special education teacher preparing for a math class. While planning for this class, Mrs. Smith conducts research on the strategies that she should use to teach computational skills. She realizes that the first step in planning is to understand why students with disabilities struggle with computation.

Math computation refers to the steps, or algorithms, students use to solve arithmetic problems. Students who have learning disabilities may have poor working memories, which negatively impact their ability to remember the steps to solve a problem. In addition, students who have visual-processing problems or poor visual-spatial skills may have difficulty recognizing correct numbers and signs, leading to errors in their work. Students may experience even more difficulty if they're required to alternately solve different types of problems, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Once Mrs. Smith understood the reasons why students with learning disabilities struggle, she was able to find strategies to overcome these challenges, which we'll discuss next.

Math Computational Strategies

Explicit Instruction and Think Alouds

Explicit instruction requires that a teacher use an in-depth approach when explaining each step of a process. A think aloud is when a teacher models his or her thinking, verbally explaining the reasoning behind each step. Students then solve the problem with the teacher, after which, they complete independent work and receive explicit feedback on how they solved the problem. This strategy benefits both students who struggle to remember the steps and those who may not pay attention to math signs.

Peer-Assisted Learning Activities

Peer-assisted learning activities involve a teacher purposefully pairing students together for review activities; typically, this intervention occurs multiple times a week. Students learn how to serve as both tutors and learners so they can assume either role throughout the school year. This strategy works well for students with learning disabilities because it provides them with the opportunity to drill and practice. Additionally, as students assume the level of tutor, they're motivated to learn the steps for specific algorithms.

Drill and Practice

Drill and practice involves students completing a set of problems repeatedly, reviewing a set of facts both known and unfamiliar. For example, students may repeatedly practice a set of addition facts that includes three easy and two difficult problems. Once they've mastered the two difficult problems, they're assigned two new unknown problems, also in a set of five. For students with math learning disabilities, drill and practice sessions allow them to develop the ability to automatically solve problems, which decreases the requirements related to working memory.

Prerequisite Skills Instruction

Prerequisite skills involve any that should have been learned earlier in one's math career. Before students can solve arithmetic problems, they must have a foundation of number sense, which involves:

  • Recognizing numbers
  • Understanding quantity to determine greater and fewer
  • Counting in sequence

For students who struggle to solve basic addition and subtraction problems, teaching prerequisite skills can help them master basic math facts. Early number sense activities are heavily language-based, which means that students must have a sufficient understanding of the vocabulary used to describe numbers. Students with math learning disabilities may have a processing deficit in language and vocabulary, which can negatively impact their ability to master number sense skills. That's why it's so important to revisit and provide instruction in prerequisite skills.

It's also important to assess if older students have a sufficient understanding of skills previously taught. Therefore, a teacher should provide opportunities for review.

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