Improving Mathematics Problem Solving Skills for English language learners with Learning Disabilities
By: Diane TorresVelasquez and Diane Rodriguez
The Problem
Not all students with learning disabilities struggle in mathematics. They do however have some characteristics in common. By definition, the term "specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, or mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (IDEA amendments of 1997, P.L. 10517, June 4, 1997, 11 stat 37 [20 U.S.C. §1401 (26)]).
Students with learning disabilities tend to experience academic difficulties, yet they have average to above average intelligence (Friend, 2005).
The academic language difficulties that are characteristic of students with learning disabilities are very similar to those of students learning a second language. For example, both may have difficulty retrieving words. In the case of a student with a learning disability, this may be due to a perceptual, processing or memory disorder. With English Language Learners (ELL), it is more a matter of learning a new word. In both cases comprehension may be slower due to the effort taken to remember words and their concepts. What strategies are useful for a teacher of mathematics whose student has a true learning disability and is also learning English as a second language?
In this article, we will specifically address the area of problem solving because of the strong emphasis it has been given by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (2000). With the strong demand for language and conceptual development in problem solving, we will highlight aspects of the teacher and student's roles and the importance of discourse. We will provide some strategies for working through mathematical problems, questioning, and assessment. We are making the assumption that the determination of a learning disability was made using best possible assessment practice. We are assuming that the learning disability exists in both languages and that the student is being provided with a rich native language development curriculum.
Implications for Teacher Practice
Teaching Standards
The Teaching Standards are an integral part of the Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (NCTM, 1991). The first three standards include items that support language development for EL students who also have learning disabilities.
Worthwhile Mathematical Tasks
The teacher of mathematics should pose tasks that are based on:
 Sound and significant mathematics
 Knowledge of students' understandings, interests, and experiences
 Knowledge of the range of ways that diverse students learn mathematics
and that
 Engage students' intellect
 Develop students' mathematical understandings and skills
 Call for problem formulation, problem solving, and mathematical reasoning
 Promote communication about mathematics
 Represent mathematics as an ongoing human activity
 Display sensitivity to, and draw on, students' diverse background experiences and dispositions
 Promote the development of all students' dispositions to do mathematics
Teacher's Role in Discourse
The teacher of mathematics should orchestrate discourse by
 Posing questions and tasks that elicit, engage, and challenge each student's thinking
 Listening carefully to students' ideas
 Asking students to clarify and justify their ideas orally and in writing
 Deciding what to pursue in depth from among the ideas that students bring up during a discussion
 Deciding when and how to attach mathematical notation and language to students' ideas
 Deciding when to provide information, when to clarify an issue, when to model, when to led, and when to let a student struggle with a difficulty
 Monitoring students' participation in discussions and deciding when and how to encourage each student to participate
Students' Role in Discourse
The teacher of mathematics should promote classroom discourse in which students
 Listen to, respond to, and question the teacher and one another
 Use a variety of tools to reason, make connections, solve problems, and communicate
 Initiate problems and questions
 Make conjectures and present solutions
 Explore examples and counterexamples to investigate a conjecture
 Try to convince themselves and one another of the validity of particular representations, solutions, conjectures, and answers
 Rely on mathematical evidence and argument to determine validity
Tips for Teachers
Working Through Mathematical Problems
One approach to planning lessons involving mathematical problem solving is to plan in three parts: before, during and after (Raborn, 1991; Van De Walle, 2004).
Observing how a student approaches a problem can provide important information for teachers. Not all students will need to do each of the following steps every time they approach a mathematics problem. However, the skills that are listed below can help students prepare mentally for comprehending and solving problems. The following inventory also provides information for teachers to use in order to identify strategies that can be taught to develop and strengthen the language and concepts of mathematics. We have included an Inventory of Student Skills for Mathematics Problem Solving in Appendix A that can be used as an observational checklist for collecting assessment data. Appendix B provides lesson plan Web sites for mathematics instruction.
Before Solving Mathematical Problems
Student Skills  Teacher Strategies 

Previews knowledge of the topic involved in the problem  KWL PREP 
Previews pictures, print, and concrete materials to generate ideas  Direct Instruction 
Is familiar with the mathematics materials and is clear about expectations on how to use and care for them.  Direct Instruction 
Identifies and requests any additional materials that may be needed to solve the problem  Direct Instruction 
Accesses and applies background knowledge to understand the gist of the problem, the vocabulary and the mathematical concept involved in the problem.  GIST 
Analyzes the QuestionAnswer Relationships to examine where to find the answer  QA R 
Sets purpose – demonstrates understanding about what he/she needs to figure out (the problem and end product)  Direct Instruction 
While Solving Mathematical Problems
Student Skills  Teacher Strategies 

Brainstorms ideas for solving the problem  Listen. Give students time and space to discuss ideas. Make behavioral expectations clear 
Uses concrete materials to manipulate ideas and to test solutions  Have materials readily available for use. Observe use of materials 
Student monitors own comprehension  Provide hints only when necessary 
Integrates new concepts with prior knowledge  Break down the concept and introduce a simpler version of the problem first 
Looks for patterns  Encourage students to express ideas with peers or represent ideas in drawings, writing, or models 
After Solving Mathematical Problems
Student Skills  Teacher Strategies 

Summarizes and explains problem and solution  Questioning 
Makes a symbolic/graphic representation to record solution  Prior Direct Instruction and Guided Practice 
Makes a table or chart to show findings  Prior Direct Instruction and Guided Practice 
Evaluates ideas from solving problem (ideas from self and peers)  Questioning 
Makes applications to student's own life  Questioning 
Connects ideas from problem and solution to broader community and societal issues  Questioning 
Teaching Strategies
KWL and PREP are two similar strategies that activate students' prior knowledge and provide the teacher with information on what students already know about the topic.
KWL
With KWL, teachers ask students to identify:
 What the students already Know (K)
 What the students Want to learn (W)
 What the students have Learned (L) after the lesson or unit of study
Generally, the class constructs a chart on the chalkboard or on poster chart paper. The chart is divided into three sections with ample room for students to contribute to each section.
K What we Know 
W What we Want to Learn 
L What we Learned 


PREP
Pre Reading Plan (PREP) is a strategy that helps the teacher to determine the prior knowledge and vocabulary that students have on a given topic (Langer, 1982). The teacher asks the students to tell her or him everything they know about the topic. There are two ways this can be done. Either the students give information verbally in an open discussion, or they contribute first in writing and then verbally. Some teachers distribute three postable notes to each student. Students write one fact they know about the topic on each postable note and place them in a basket. The teacher collects the notes and reads them one at a time with the whole class group. In either case, the teacher uses the student information to develop a chart of what students already know. As students are discussing what they know, the teacher can prompt further discussion with questions such as "What made you think of…?" "Do you want to add or change your first response?" Some teachers organize the chart by subtopic and then keep the chart posted in the room for students to review as they continue to learn about the major topic of study. Many teachers find it helpful to make a chart that organizes the extent to which students are familiar with the topic:
Much Knowledge  Some Knowledge  Little Knowledge 

GIST
GIST is a strategy for identifying the most important aspects of a story problem. First, the teacher defines 'gist' to the students as the main idea without excessive details. The teacher draws a chart on the board for each paragraph of the text, or uses a premade overhead transparency with charts already outlined. Each chart has 20 boxes. The class can work in groups to capture the main idea of each paragraph in 20 words or less (one word for each of the 20 boxes). If the text includes more than one paragraph, students read and 'gist' the first paragraph completely before proceeding to the second paragraph. Then the students incorporate the information from both the first and second paragraphs in just 20 words. It is recommended that text with no more than three paragraphs be used in this exercise.
GIST Chart for Word Problems
QuestionAnswer Relationship
QuestionAnswer Relationship (QA R) strategies assist students in examining information provided by the author of the text (Raphael, 1986). Comprehension tasks now require students to answer both explicit and implicit questions. Students are taught to read the text carefully to determine whether answers are in the text or whether they will have to draw from their own knowledge to find answers to questions. Although this strategy is useful with reading of books and longer text, it can be used in problem solving to help students identify what information is indeed provided in the problem and what they will need to draw from their own knowledge. QA R uses four categories. When the answer is in the text, it is either stated directly "Right There" in one part of the text, or the student can "Think and Search" to put the answer together from information found in several parts of the text. When the answer is drawn from student knowledge, it is either between the author and reader (the reader must consider what the author is providing in the text and fit it with what the reader already knows), or the reader can answer the question without even reading the text (no part of the answer is in the story, the reader must draw totally from their own experience and prior knowledge).
Questioning Strategies
Current standards emphasize the importance of mathematics as communication. Many students with learning disabilities and many ELL students will benefit from the use of language to elicit, support and extend mathematical thinking. We have included a table of strategies and corresponding examples of questions to use to help students process and conceptualize solutions to mathematical problems. Yeatts, Battista, Mayberry, Thompson, & Zowojewski (2004) and Fraivilling (2001) recommend the strategies included in the table below. The questions were adapted from Carin, Bass & Contant (2005).
Strategies to Elicit Student Thinking  Questions to Elicit Student Thinking 

Strategies to Elicit Student Thinking  Questions to Elicit Student Thinking 
Elicit many solution methods for one problem  Did anyone find a different way to solve this problem? 
Wait for, and listen to, students' descriptions of solution methods  What did you do? What happened when you…? 
Encourage students to elaborate and discuss  What surprised you about… Were all of the groups' solutions the same? How were they different? Why do you think there was a difference between your groups' answers? 
Use students' explanations as a basis for the lesson's content  What are some things you noticed about the…? 
Convey an attitude of acceptance toward students' efforts  I see… So you're saying that…You may need to rephrase student response to clarify for student what was said. Write out student solutions for all to see, or have students contribute to group display. 
Promote collaborative problem solving  Ask directly, "How did you work together to solve this problem?" or after one student has described the answer to a question, redirect the question to another member of the same problem solving group, "Rosa, would you like to add anything else?" 
Strategies to support students' thinking  Questions to support students' thinking 
Remind students of conceptually similar problems  How was this like the problem we solved last week using raisins? 
Provide background knowledge  What objects do you see here? (Explicitly teach vocabulary of new and unknown items) What do you see that is new to you? Provide clear and vivid examples/stories or act out any actions required to solve the problem. 
Lead students through "instant replays"  What happened first? In what sequence/order did things happen? 
Write symbolic representations of solutions when appropriate  Let's write out all the solutions we found. Is there a way to organize these answers? (Organize solutions into tables or graphs) 
Strategies to extend students' thinking  Questions to extend students' thinking 
Maintain high standards and expectations for all students  Make sure that each student has an opportunity to participate and respond as a valued member of the group and class. Simulate situations that require the particular problem solved. If you go to the doctor's office, you will expect them to know how to solve this type of problem. Your life could depend on it. Today, you are going to show me what you know by being my doctor. You will explain to me how you have solved this problem… 
Encourage students to make generalizations  How does this relate to what your family thinks about…? (topic of discussion) As a consumer, how would this help you make a choice about the products you will buy? 
List all solution methods on the board to promote reflection  Looking at all of our work, how would you state the problem? What are the alternative choices? What personal and societal values are reflected in this problem? Which choice do you think is the best choice for you? 
Resources
Preparing to Solve Mathematical Problems  With Teacher Support  Without Teacher Support 

Previews Knowledge of the topic involved in the problem (KWL, PREP)  
Previews pictures, print, and concrete materials to generate ideas  
Is familiar with the mathematics materials and is clear about expectations on how to use and care for them.  
Identifies and requests any additional materials that may be needed to solve the problem  
Accesses and applies background knowledge to understand the gist of the problem, the vocabulary and the mathematical concept involved in the problem. (GIST)  
Analyzes the QuestionAnswer Relationships to examine where to find the answer (QA R)  
Sets purpose – demonstrates understanding about what he/she needs to figure out (the problem and end product)  
Solving Mathematical Problems:  
Brainstorms ideas for solving the problem  
Uses concrete materials to manipulate ideas and to test solutions  
Integrates new concepts with prior knowledge  
Looks for patterns  
Draws a picture or uses some type of graphic representation to record findings so that they can be reviewed later by self or others  
Summarizes and explains problem and solution  
Makes a symbolic/graphic representation to record solution  
After Finding a Solution to the Problem:  
Summarizes and explains problem and solution  
Makes a symbolic/graphic representation to record solution  
Makes a table or chart to show findings  
Evaluates ideas from solving problem (ideas from self and peers)  
Makes applications to student's own life  
Connects ideas from problem and solution to broader community and societal issues 
Appendix B: Lesson Plan Web sites
 Ntcm.org
 Mathematics Lesson Plans
 Awesome Library: Mathmatics
 The Math Forum @ Drexel
 Lesson Planz.com
 edHelper.com
 Dave's ESL Cafe
 Many Things.org
References
Click the "References" link above to hide these references.
IDEA Amendments of 1997, PL 10517, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq.
Carin, A.A., Bass, J.E., & Contant, T.L. (2005). Teaching science as inquiry. (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Friend, M.P. (2005). Special education: Contemporary perspectives for school professionals. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Langer, J. (1982). Facilitating text processing: The elaboration of prior knowledge. In J. Langer & J.T. SmithBurke (Eds.), Reader meets author/Bridging the gap. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1991). Professional standards for teaching mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.
Raphael, T.E. (1986). Teaching questionanswer relationships, revisited. The Reading Teacher, 39(6), 519.
Raborn, D. (1992). Cooperative learning and assessment: A viable alternative for language minority and bilingual students. Cooperative Learning: The Magazine for Cooperation in Education, 13(1), 911.
Van de Walle, J.A. (2004). Elementary and middle school mathematics: Teaching developmentally. (5th ed.). New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
TorresVelasquez, D. and Rodriguez, D. (2005). Improving Mathematics Problem Solving Skills for English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities. Project LASER, University of South Florida. Reprinted with permission.
For more information on the LASER project, contact project director Dr. Brenda L. Townsend at btownsen@tempest.coedu.usf.edu.
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