What is Multisensory Math?
Multisensory math is a three-dimensional sequential way to learn math. Everyone can benefit from multisensory math particularly those who struggle with math.
Orton-Gillingham Approach in a Math Setting
The Orton-Gillingham approach is a multisensory approach to teaching literacy. It involves using auditory, visual, sensory, and kinesthetic elements to help students understand the connection between language and letters or words.
Multisensory math applies the same principles to mathematics instruction. It encourages the use of touch, sight, hearing, and movement–when learning and teaching a new concept. Marilyn Zecher, M.A., CALT, a certified academic language therapist and specialist, speaker, and former classroom and demonstration teacher, expanded and developed this approach further. She applied and combined the Orton-Gillingham Approach with evidence-based practices based on neuro-imaging studies and NCTM and What Works Clearinghouse recommendations.
Zecher emphasizes the language of math, stressing that the language of instruction is crucial during the process of concept formation and developing skills towards application. Multisensory math uses the Concrete, Representational, and Abstract (CRA) instructional sequence and explicit language to help learners grasp math concepts more effectively.
To ensure effective instruction using the multisensory math approach, learners must be taught explicitly, practice skills consistently, and learn new concepts through CRA.
Concrete (Touch) – This aspect of multisensory math refers to touch. Teachers use tangible objects to represent concepts or numbers, such as breaking apart foam shapes (or using other manipulatives) to demonstrate fractions.
Representational (Drawing) – After concrete or tactile demonstration, teachers can then introduce the representational or drawing aspect. This technique encourages a learner to create his or her own visualization of the concept learned. It also aids students to facilitate their own connections and allows them to write down what they are thinking.
Abstract (Symbols) – Once they have fully understood the lesson introduced and built up during Concrete and Representational, the next stage is the abstract or symbols sequence. Traditionally, teachers introduced math lessons using only abstract concepts (numbers and symbols). And while this has worked for some, other learners find it difficult to grasp math ideas without concrete or visual representation.
Math Concepts that Learners Should Master
According to Zecher, learners must master four conceptual horizons that lay down the foundation for higher levels of math. These are:
- Pattern Recognition and Subitizing – Being able to identify quantity instantly or subitizing is a key concept in math and is one of its foundations. The best way to see quantity is through patterns. Having the ability to visualize numbers is crucial in developing a strong number sense. It opens the path to operational fluency and understanding number relationships. An example of subitizing would be recognizing dice patterns: One can visually identify the number or quantity without having to count or tap each dot. Likewise, it is also important to recognize number bonds and understand that numbers can be decomposed or broken down (such as 8 into 3 and 5 or 2 and 6).
- Place Value – Using craft sticks is a great way to teach place value using multisensory math techniques. As the number gets larger, learners can see the quantity change and feel a heavier weight. Likewise, it helps learners visualize the difference between a number’s standard (the number’s name = 125) and expanded form (what it is made of = 100 + 20 + 5).
- Distributive Property – This refers to a learner’s ability to act on larger quantities and understanding that those quantities can be broken apart or decomposed and act on those numbers. To illustrate, consider 15 x 3. Learners must first understand that 15 can be decomposed into 10 and 5. They can then distribute (multiply) 3 and add those quantities to find the product of 15 x 3.
- What is ONE and all its many names – This refers to the concept that any number written over itself is equivalent to one. Hence, multiplying or dividing by some form of one only changes the composition of the quantity and not the quantity itself.
Getting Started on Multisensory Math Techniques
Multisensory teaching methods were first applied in literacy and reading instruction. But over the years, learning specialists have found that the same multisensory approach can also be effectively used when teaching math. Particularly, when it is applied using the CRA framework.
To get started with multisensory math, it is important to take advantage of skills that a learner has already mastered. From there, new concepts can be introduced using the CRA method. Using manipulatives is integral in multisensory math, but these do not need to be expensive. Some items commonly used are:
- Craft sticks
- Beads and string
- Base ten blocks
- Interlocking cubes
- Color tiles
- Foam stickers
- Flat marbles
- Dice/Dominoes (only up to six)
Here are some multisensory techniques for teaching math:
- Visualizing with manipulatives such as beads, color tiles, or blocks is an excellent technique to teach basic operations like addition and subtraction. By seeing how quantities change, young learners get a better understanding of how math operations work. Visualization also helps children understand amounts and develop number sense.
- Using cubes or tiles to build shapes lets children have a concrete and physical representation of measurements and properties.
- Drawing math problems is an excellent way to reinforce hands-on activities as it lets children illustrate their thinking and the concept they learned.
- Tapping out numbers allows children to “feel” the value of numbers. It helps students better understand and make connections between symbols and actual amounts.
- Using songs to help memorize math rules and introduce new concepts.
- Incorporating movement into math through play and games
- Using bundling sticks or coffee stirrers to teach regrouping and place value. This can also be done using base ten blocks.
- Using a hundreds chart is an excellent way to teach number relationships to children.
- Cutting pizza into slices to introduce and teach the concept of fractions. By cutting up a paper or cardboard pizza, you allow children to see what fractions look like as they select slices.
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