Teaching Slope to Special Education Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

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

Helping students understand the slope of a line is a big part of their middle school and secondary math instruction. This lesson offers some ideas for teaching slope to special education students.

Why Slope Matters

As a pre-algebra teacher in an inclusive classroom, one where special education students learn and grow alongside their typically-developing peers, Ms. Lee spends a lot of time focusing on the coordinate plane. When students understand how to graph and represent equations on the coordinate plane, they have a better sense of the applicability and function of algebraic equations. Ms. Lee knows that this understanding will be crucial as they move on to algebra and beyond.

This year, Ms. Lee has noticed that her special education students are struggling to master the concept of slope, or the extent and direction of the slant of a line on the coordinate plane. She sets out to learn more about the nature of this struggle and how to address it in the classroom.

Special Education and Slope

Ms. Lee realizes there are many different reasons why slope might be a particularly challenging concept for her special education students.

For students with learning disabilities, the equation for the line y = mx + b, in which 'm' represents the slope, is relatively abstract and may be easily confused. Especially for students who still struggle with reading and language, this equation can be easy to reverse and difficult to remember.

Similarly, students with learning disabilities that impact their visual tracking and acuity do not necessarily see or understand the subtle differences among various lines on the coordinate plane, making slope seem irrelevant.

Students in Ms. Lee's class who also happen to be on the autism spectrum sometimes have a hard time understanding the ways slope applies to authentic situations. Though many of these students grasp the equation solidly, they might have trouble transferring between the equation and the graph. The task may seem overwhelming because it involves relational work between one form of representation and another, or because of the sensory tasks involved in graphing a line properly.

Students with attention or executive function difficulties or those diagnosed with emotional disturbances may find the concept of slope difficult because of the amount of focus it requires. The need to synthesize information from a variety of sources can be challenging, too.


Now that Ms. Lee has some understanding of why slope is difficult for special education students, she is better equipped to address their needs. She realizes that she will need to access these students' learning styles and strengths, as well as give them more time to master the concept.

Visual Activities

As Ms. Lee knows, many special education students learn best visually, using images and graphic organizers to keep track of new information. For these students, the following activities can be helpful:

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