Math Studying Tricks for the Math Challenged

When working with kids with learning differences, the most common subject I have to help with is math. My dyslexic kids transpose numbers, even as they put the into or read them from a calculator; my kids with dyscalculia feel hopeless with each task; my AD/HD kids argue about showing steps. My own daughter finds math to be daunting because she wants it to make sense faster than it does for her.

So what has worked over the years? Many things!

First, I find that anything that involves food or cell phones makes math, from pre-algebra through second year algebra way more easily conceptualized. When working on multiplication or division tables, I ask kids to picture a tray of brownies or cookies. I try to get students to use arrays either in their heads or, preferably, right in front of them to better understand the concepts of multiplication and division. When the cookies or brownies are right there, it is much easier for a students to create that running video of a happy math memory in their minds. Being able to pick objects up and organize them entails two modalities plus the pleasant sensory memory of the smells and tastes. Don’t underestimate the power of the limbic system! I also encourage kids to learn the Multiplication Rock songs. Again, they are fun, silly and a pleasant way to go about a frustrating task. Finally, arrays are easily created with poker chips as well — not as tasty, but very handy.

Speaking of poker chips, they are great for showing kids how to isolate and solve for a variable. Red is set as -1, white is set as +1, blue is -x and green is +x. This means you would set up a problem like x+6 = 3x — 2 like this:

The goal here is to get one side to be +x only and the other side to be numbers (+ or -) only. So you would choose a side to be the working side. In this case, let’s say the right side as it has the smaller number of x’s, so you will eliminate them from the left and eliminate the numbers from the right. Whatever you do to the left side to make zero sandwiches you have to do to the right and vice versa. This means the next step is this:

Step 2: Begin to isolate x by removing it from one side completely via “zero sandwiches”

Which leads to:

Step 3: Simplify! Remove your zero sandwiches.

The final step here is division, so set up the chips like this:

Step 4: Divide the greens up and then divide the whites evenly to correspond.

And voila! X is by itself and has a value of 4.

Another trick I saw work very well addresses graphing. I created a giant four foot by four foot coordinate plane in my office that I fondly referred to as “the big green monster”. Students could easily use their hands to find coordinates and we used post-it dots to plot points. It was fun to go to “the monster” to work, and the plane being huge tended to help as well. If I were to make it anew, I would also color code the quadrants. I would make Quadrant I green (green means “go”) with a little built in arrow to indicate where Quadrant II sits, and then the colors could progress either in rainbow order or even with random colors. This big muscle movement activity was fun, easy and made it easier for kids to picture when it came down to it.

Finally, doing homework out loud sometimes makes all the difference in the world. Just removing the writing seems to increase accuracy and decrease stress in so many of the students with whom I work. Sometimes it addresses a disconnect between brain and pencil, sometimes it addresses a lack of patience, sometimes it forces verbalizing both what is well understood and what is not. Either way, it is worth trying. If your student is dysgraphic or simple loves using a computer, check out Math Talk ( which allows for dictation that is recognized as math instead of odd random words.

Math is a tough subject for so many people, and very often the difficulty is proportional to the anxiety about it, not to the actual ability. Make it fun, make it hands-on and make it memorable!

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