Improving Academic Performance

3 Concepts Students with Learning Disabilities in Math Need to Know

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 @ 10:00 AM

At MyGuru, our tutors have generally attended highly selective academic institutions for their undergraduate and graduate studies and amassed hundreds of hours of tutoring experience. We have experts in a variety of subject areas.

However, we don’t tend to be specialists in helping students with learning disabilities.

I do know that, with the right customized instruction, learning disabilities can certainly be overcome. When one of our students has a “mild” disability, we’ll often seek advice from one of our partner firms, the Chicago Home Tutor (CHT) which does specialize in learning disabilities. If the disability is moderate to severe, we’ll often refer the student to CHT.

In this blog article, I’ll relay a situation we recently came across related to helping a student with a learning disability in math, and reproduce the three-part advice provided by the Chicago Home Tutor. The advice below was provided by an individual named Brendan Deztner a CHT tutor who is licensed as a learning behavior specialist and also received the highly qualified designation in math from the Illinois State Board of Education.

The situation

We were working with a student making very slow progress in learning the math required to perform well on the GRE. He knew he had auditory processing disorder, and poor working memory. He’d been tested and qualified for time and a half accommodation on his standardized tests.

The MyGuru GRE tutor had noticed that student had::

  • significant trouble retaining math facts, from one session to the next. Sometimes he could even get four questions on a topic correct, then mess up on the fifth. Drills didn't seem to help him retain the steps, even within a single session.
  • struggle processing information, directions, etc. when even one or two words change. (Eg, paraphrasing something the tutor just said could confuse him, and she would have to re-explain. This is a big challenge since standardized tests ask the same couple things in a variety of ways.)
  • significant struggle switching topics, e.g. If one question is about algebra, the next is a geometry question, the next asks about number properties, etc. It was a big task to get him to switch to a different approach for the new type of question.
  • His scores on practice tests were fairly consistent for verbal (75th percentile or so) but very inconsistent for math (30th-45th, having trouble cracking into the top half).

The tutor had tried a variety of tactics to help him learn the fundamentals, but just didn’t know how to help him.

The advice

Standardized testing is tricky for students with learning disabilities. They often get extra time, but perhaps not the extra tools they need to succeed.

CHT checked out the GRE website because they were curious if he could potentially qualify for other accommodations if he got updated testing. Here’s what was found:

There wasn’t much else that would help him in there unfortunately. CHT noted that they have all sorts of tips and tricks and modifications when testing situations are more flexible, but it’s hard when someone has struggles like that and they aren’t allowed to use any supports that would be reasonable even to use in daily life (calculators, etc.) but would still show that they understand the concepts. Students spend so much time struggling with calculations, so that mental effort is not free to grasp the bigger picture.

That said, Brendan Detzner from CHT offered the following advice.

“The big three things that trip kids up are deceptively small and easy to work on, but once all the psychological and confidence-related stuff is worked through the majority of the students I work with who "just don't like math" have problems that boil down to these three things:

#1 - Multiplication facts and factoring…

Students need to have their zero-to-ten multiplication facts down cold, and they need to be able to take any number from 1-100 and either identify it as prime or be able to list its factors. I have an activity involving a visual aid that I use.

#2 Doing the basic operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) on positive and negative numbers…

For multiplication and division, it helps a great deal if you've got everything in the multiplication facts section mastered, but it's pretty simple once you do. For addition and subtraction, it helps to use a number line or other visual aid for a while, but it's still mostly a matter of repetition. Just keep doing working on it until it becomes boring, easy, and trivial.

#3 Doing the basic operations with fractions, converting back and forth between improper fractions and mixed numbers, and converting between fractions/percentages/decimals…

Again, if you try to get into this before your multiplication facts and factoring are down cold it's going to be incredibly frustrating (which is what many teachers are forced to do in order to cover everything in a curriculum by the end of the school year). And there are honestly a lot of finicky little rules dealing with fractions that only gradually come to make sense, even if you do have your factors down cold, but there's no way out, you've got to know them.

These three are non-negotiable. By and large, they are why students who show up to class and give it their best shot still fail math. If you aren't fluent in these skills, it will catch up to you sooner or later, and most teachers aren't in a position to take time to remediate these skills in school. They take different people different amounts of time and effort to master, but regular effort over time is really all that it takes, especially now that tools like Khan Academy and IXL are readily available. If you've got them mastered, you're probably going to be in pretty good shape when it comes time to learn Algebra and Geometry.

If a student has mastered factoring, negative numbers, and fractions, and wants to do more in order to be ready for school, I'd have them work on word problems, and there are students with specific learning disabilities whose situation is more complicated, but for most people most of the time? Factoring, negative numbers, fractions. Factoring, negative numbers, fractions. Until it gets boring and easy. No more, no less.”


Learning math when you have a learning disability is not an easy task. When you are learning math for a standardized test and unable to use tools such as a calculator or visual aid, the situation can become even more frustrating. But, as Brendan describes above, there are foundational concepts to focus on which can help a student with a learning disability begin to show improvement