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Teaching Math Vocabulary 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.

Learning vocabulary can be a big part of what helps students succeed in math. This lesson helps you understand how to teach math vocabulary to students with learning disabilities.

Why Math Vocabulary Counts

In Ms. Pinkerton's seventh grade math class, there are many different things to keep track of. Ms. Pinkerton focuses on her students' mathematical thought processes and problem-solving abilities. She makes sure that their number sense is strong and their computational skills are accurate. Ms. Pinkerton also places a high premium on her students' grasp of mathematical vocabulary, or words and phrases directly related to math concepts. Ms. Pinkerton knows that if her students are going to successfully understand complex math and communicate their own mathematical thinking, they will need to have strong mathematical vocabularies.

Over time, Ms. Pinkerton has noticed that her students with learning disabilities often struggle with mathematical vocabulary. Learning disabilities are often understood as discrepancies between students' overall intelligence and their ability to learn or acquire new information in one of more subject areas. Because learning disabilities often impact language and literacy, students who have them may have a hard time learning, remembering, and activating specialized vocabulary. Ms. Pinkerton, therefore, uses some specific strategies to help these students succeed with the language-embedded aspects of math.

Math Word Walls

One thing Ms. Pinkerton likes to do is use a math word wall in her classroom. A math word wall is a bulletin board dedicated to posting mathematical vocabulary relevant to the unit at hand. Ms. Pinkerton organizes her math word wall alphabetically and keeps it up to date. She encourages students to refer to the wall when writing or talking about mathematical concepts, and she gets students actively engaged in maintaining the wall.

When each unit ends, Ms. Pinkerton photographs the wall and gives her students with learning disabilities printouts of the photographs to glue into their math notebooks. This way, they still have special access to the vocabulary even though the unit is over.

Visual Cues and Reminders

Ms. Pinkerton also knows that many students with learning disabilities are visual learners, or learners who benefit from having images to associate with ideas and graphic ways to organize thought processes. Every time she introduces a new vocabulary word, therefore, she has these students create a small sketch that represents the term. They draw these sketches in their notebook next to the word. Then, when Ms. Pinkerton uses the word, she asks her students to shut their eyes and picture the corresponding image. She finds that this reminder system is very helpful in allowing students to take ownership over the vocabulary.

Kinesthetic Clues and Reminders

Other students with learning disabilities are kinesthetic learners, those who benefit from using movement and tactile sensations to supplement their learning. For these students, Ms. Pinkerton works in small groups around vocabulary. She encourages them to develop gestures and motions that remind them of key terms. As with her visual learners, Ms. Pinkerton has her kinesthetically oriented students do these motions repeatedly when they are trying to access mathematical vocabulary. For instance, a student might stick both hands out next to each other in parallel formation to remember the word 'parallel.'

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