The majority of students with learning disabilities (LD) are taught in the general education classroom today because of the trend toward inclusive services in special education. However, there is limited literature on teaching math for such students compared to the literature on teaching reading and language arts. Some very basic modifications could increase the success for students with LD and also help others in the classroom that are at risk for having learning problems. In fact, students with LD benefit from many of the same teaching strategies that help all children learn mathematics, but perhaps with modified pacing and depth. The purpose of this article is to overview LD characteristics, review the literature on math and LD at the elementary level, and then summarize some key principles for practice in general education K-5 classes. These ideas address the need for an overlap in the fields of mathematics education and learning disabilities.
Children that are labeled LD must meet several criteria. First of all, there must be a discrepancy between potential and performance. In other words these students are underachieving in mathematics, reading, writing, or some other academic area. This problem is presumed to be related to a central nervous system disorder, which suggests that LD is an intrinsic problem and therefore cannot be completely controlled by the children. In addition, students with LD exhibit processing problems such as memory and perception. Finally, the children do not have other primary disabilities such as mental retardation or emotional disturbance (Lerner, 2000).
Many of the characteristics that children with LD exhibit interfere significantly with their mathematics performance. It is useful for teachers to be aware of these potential problems because often teachers can intervene appropriately once they are able to detect the types and causes of errors for a given student. Processing problems make mathematics learning particularly difficult. Visual processing problems, for example, could lead to children losing their places when using the textbook, confusing numbers like 15 for 51, and using a number line in reverse. They could even make errors by working certain problems from left to right (as they are taught in reading) instead of right to left (Miller and Mercer, 1997). Some children would have trouble focusing on certain aspects of a problem; the entire page of work would look like a confused mass instead of a problem in a particular sequence. They might confuse the signs for the operations and have trouble with manipulative materials for money, measurement, and time. Lining up work for place value accurately could also be difficult and therefore lead to errors with the calculations (Bley and Thornton, 2001).
Auditory processing problems, on the other hand, could lead to difficulty understanding the teacher's explanations. Even if the material were on the appropriate level, a student with auditory deficits would have no chance to succeed if the oral directions and instruction were not clear to him. Because their auditory processing problems make the oral explanations and examples confusing, students often act as if their math assignments are much too difficult.
Motor processing problems will often cause handwriting difficulties, which can affect math performance. There is a great emphasis particularly in the elementary textbooks today on writing for mathematics. These students will make many errors copying the problems from their texts and will probably have great difficulty learning to write their numbers accurately (Miller and Mercer, 1997). For example, a very bright math student could get the wrong answers to complex math problems because he cannot read his own writing.
Memory problems interfere greatly in math work. A common example is that children will have even more difficulty than usual memorizing their math facts. …