Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Math for Learning Disabled

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Due to the nations response to the low ranking in international comparison math tests, there has been an increase of the graduation requirements for mathematics. As the standards for mathematics increase in the United States public schools, students with learning disabilities in math classes are placed at an even greater disadvantage because of their difficulties in acquiring and retaining knowledge (Witzel, Smith, & Brownell). In order to save these students from drowning in the pool of these additional demanding requirements, special teaching strategies must be implemented in secondary education mathematics classrooms.

Students who have learning disabilities are of average to above average intelligence but lack proficiencies that affect their ability to successfully learn math skills. The struggles and complications that learning-disabled students encounter in math classes varies from student to student. The deficiencies that they experience involve language, memory, and attention skills. Therefore, not all teaching strategies will have equivalent effectiveness for every student, but each strategy can be adapted to fit the students’ individual needs.

One type of disability that many students experience is attention-deficit disorders. These students have difficulty focusing their attention on tasks, which can affect their success when receiving instruction and problem solving. The student must be able to stay focused long enough to finish the process of problem solving, which becomes even more strenuous when the higher-level math problems require multiple steps to compute (Miles & Forcht). According to Sydney S. Zentall, students with attention deficit disorders are two to three times more likely to fail than non-learning disabled children of the same intelligence. Due to this fact, it is critical that we alter our teaching methods in order to accommodate these students.

Two teaching strategies that will facilitate learning for students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders are the CRA method and the Cognitive Assault Strategy. Both strategies are easy to implement and can foster the learning for a variety of students. These tactics focus on the students’ abilities, rather than their weaknesses.

The CRA method ameliorates abstract reasoning by moving students through concrete, representational, and abstract phases of instruction. The concrete phase of this strategy involves using manipulatives and hands-on experiments. Involving the student actively in the task can help to discourage the withdrawal into submissiveness, which is characteristic of students with attention deficits. At the concrete level, students learn how numerical symbols and abstract equations operate. This is necessary because as the problems become more complex, it is essential for students to understand the underlying concept of the algorithm. The next phase of this method, the representational stage uses pictures, such as tally marks or graphs, which are directly related to the manipulative and set the student up to solve numeric problems without pictures. Matching physical and pictorial material to represent abstract problems helps students to understand abstract concepts.

While using the CRA method, it is useful to connect math instruction to student’s lives, tap into students’ prior knowledge, and model problem solving. Students’ fascination with problems can be enhanced when names, locations, and events are changed to personal references. Making the classroom activities relevant to the students’ lives can attach personal meaning to the content taught and make the material unique. This makes the material easier to remember for the students and also gains their attention. Students learning process can also be facilitated by using a thinking aloud strategy, which shows students how to perform each step of the problem while stating aloud why each step is performed. This serves as a model to the students of how to go about solving abstract problems.

The Cognitive Assault Strategy is similar to the CRA method, in that both provide scaffolded instruction and require the students’ active involvement in the learning process. The Cognitive Assault Strategy includes self-questioning, modeling, guided practice, and mastery criterion. This strategy relies on the concept of having an outside source as a repository of memory and also on the concept of mentoring. Having an outside source, such as worked examples or models, can reduce the demand on the working memory and can also increase calculation efficiency. Mentoring is also advantageous to learning as it structures the task, models strategies for problem solving, and provides feedback and reinforcement (Miles & Forcht).

The intent of the Cognitive Assault Strategy is to maximize attention, learning, and concept formation. In order to achieve these goals, the strategy uses an instructor or mentor to provide scaffolding and also requires the students to provide written and oral representation of the mathematical process used to solve a problem. Having the student verbalize the process in their own words can provide a way for the instructor to assess the students’ ability and helps the student understand the meaning of the process being performed. The written representation of the process is also useful in that it can serve as a repository of memory for the student.

The first step of this strategy is after giving a student a math problem, have him write an identifying title on the top of a page for future reference. The student then copies the problem down and verbalizes the mathematical steps used to solve the problem. During the verbalization step of this process the instructor guides the student on the thought process and also helps the student rephrase inappropriate responses. On the lower half of the sheet, the student then recalls and writes down the verbalizations in sequential order. The student may then keep this model for future reference, instead of relying on the instructors’ assistance for similar problems (Miles & Forcht). Many students with attention deficit disorders fail to ask for help because it requires waiting, which distracts their attention (Zentall). By having the models produced from the Cognitive Assault Strategy at hand, the students can get around asking for help and stay on task while keeping their attention focused on the problem. Therefore, it is very useful to use this strategy with attention-deficit students.

Both the CRA method and the Cognitive Assault Strategy are easy to apply in the classroom and can be effectively used in other curriculum areas. Also, the important aspect of these teaching strategies is that they are designed to help the instructor guide the student rather than direct the process. Through these types of instruction, teachers cannot only help students with attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities, but all of the students in the mainstream classroom.

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