Category Archives: Number Sense

Superhero Math

I was recruited to help a middle school student who is having a very rough time at this time in his life. It was shared with me that he likes Marvel superheroes and he is struggling with counting money and multiplication. Below are some ideas I presented for a test run and photos of the items I ordered for these suggested activities.

  • For multiplication

    • Put the heroes (or villains) in groups of 2 and have him count out 4 groups and compute. Use different groups and number per group. (IGNORE the numbers on the cards)

    • Get a group of 10 villain cards. Pretend heroes have to travel in groups of 2 and ask how many groups to get 10 heroes to fight the 10 villains. (IGNORE the numbers on the cards). Variations of this.

    • After gets the idea of groupings, focus on the number on the cards and show him two 5s and have him compute. Variations of this.

    • Play a game where he draws two cards and has to multiply the cards (start with very low numbers or maybe show him a 2 card and he has to pick another card to multiply by 2.

marvel playing cards

  • For Money

    • Tell him he earn money to buy these figures, one at a time – a monetary version of a token economy. Have him rank them by his favorite to least favorite and come up with a price for each with his favorite figures costing more. Start with the least favorite and make the price such that with a little practice he could count out the coins to pay for it. Maybe 17 cents with dimes and pennies. He has to count out the money correctly and independently to actually buy the item.

Avengers Figurines

  • Other options

    • If he needs work with addition you can play WAR in which 3 cards are played and each person adds to find the total. For subtraction do the same with 2 cards.

    • You can play subtraction in which one person has superheroes and the other has villains. In order for a villain to win a villain card has to be higher than a hero card by 3 or more.

You can write an 11, 12 and 13 on the J, Q, K cards respectively. All the games can be presented though Direct Instruction – I do, we do, you do. The You do can be used as daily progress monitoring. If he needs prompting this can be recorded. This can be used for your progress reports. Attached is a data sheet I use for activities.

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Lego Fractions

The photo below is courtesy of Robert Yu, Head of Lego Education China, as shared by Jonathan Rochelle, Director for Project Management at Google.

The use of Legos shown here is a classic (and wicked clever) example of manipulatives.

Lego fraction model

Before writing the actual fractions students can use drawings as shown below. The sequence of manipulatives, drawings then the actual “mathy” stuff constitutes a Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) model. Concrete = manipulative, Representational = picture, abstract = symbolic or the “mathy” stuff.


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So Easy?!

Problems like the addition problem below are often viewed by adults as straight forward. This perception can make it difficult for adults, including teachers and even special education teachers to help students who struggle with it.

I find that the math teacher candidates and special education teacher candidates struggle with breaking down math topics, especially “easy” ones like the one below, into simple steps. To help students who struggle with math breaking down the math topic is imperative. The analogy I use is to break the topic down into bite-sized pieces like we cut up a hot dog for a baby in a high chair.


For new teachers I use a formal task analysis approach to teach candidates how to cut up the math into bite-sized pieces. A task analysis for the problem above was an assignment given to a group of graduate level special ed candidates. As is common, they overlooked many simple little steps hidden in the problem. These steps are hidden because they are so simple or so automatic in our brains that we don’t think about them. See below for how I break this topic into several pieces or steps. For example, before even starting the addition the person doing the problem has to identify that 43 is a 2-digit number with 4 in the TENS place and 3 in the ONES place. Understanding that the problem is addition which entails pulling the numbers together to get a total (sum) is an essential and overlooked step. If a student struggles with a step the step can be addressed in isolation, as I show in another blog post.


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Adding ones digits in 2 digit numbers with carrying

A major obstacle in math for many students with special needs is carrying in addition problems. Below is a task analysis approach.

First, I target the step of identifying the ONES and TENS place in the 2 digit sum in the ONES column (below it is 12). In a scaffolded handout I create a box to for the sum with the ONES and TENS separated. At first I give the sum and simply have the student carry the one.

sum of ones given.jpg

Then I have the student find the sum and write it in the box (14 below). Once mastered I have the student write the sum and carry the 1.

sum of ones given

They would have mastered adding single digit numbers before this lesson. I revert back to single digit numbers to allow them to get comfortable with writing the sum off to the side without the scaffolding. (In the example below I modeled this by writing 13.)

sum of ones with color no scaffolding

The last step is to add the TENS digits with the carried 1. I use Base 10 manipulatives to work through all the steps (larger space on the right is for the manipulatives) and have the student write out each step as it is completed with the manipulatives.

sum of ones with carrying with base 10 blocks first

Finally, the student attempts to add without the scaffolding. I continue with color but then fade it.

adding 2 digit numbers with carrying with color no scaffold

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Place Value Representation

Here is an easy way to create and implement strategy to unpack place value for students (created by one of my former graduate students). I suggest using this after manipulatives and visual representations (drawing on paper) in a CRA sequence. It is hands on but it includes the symbolic representation (numbers). Hence is another step before jumping into the mathy stuff.

pace value representation just numbers.jpg

The focus can shift to money as well.

2017-06-07 18.06.49

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The I in Instruction can be the same I in IEP and IDEA.

I am consistently surprised by the reliance on canned items for students who struggle. There are different reasons students struggle but we know that there are secondary characteristics and factors that inhibit effective information processing that can be addressed with some Individualization.

In a math intervention graduate course I teach at the University of Saint Joseph, my graduate students are matched up with a K-12 student with special needs. The graduate student implements instructional strategies learned from our course work. Below is the work of one of my grad students. From class work and our collaboration we developed the idea of using the fish and a pond as base 10 blocks for the student my grad student was helping. He likes fish and fish will get his attention. The grad student explained that if he has 10 fish the 10 fish go into a pond. In the photo below the student modeled 16 with a TEN (pond) and 6 ONES (fish).

2018-07-26 17.13.05.jpg

Similarly, another student likes Starbursts and that student’s respective grad student created Starburst packs to represent TENS and ONES (there are actually 12 pieces in a pack so we fudged a little).  The point is that it was intuitive and relevant for the student. The student understood opening a pack to get a Starburst piece.

2018-07-26 17.41.15


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More Than: Concept and Symbol

The alligator eats the bigger number is the common approach for student to use inequality symbols (<  > <  > ). I find that students remember the sentence but many do not retain the concept or use the symbols correctly, even in high school. The reason, I believe, is that we introduce additional extraneous information: the act of eating, the mouth which is supposed to translate into a symbol, the alligator itself. For a student with processing or working memory challenges this additional information can be counter productive.

alligator eats bigger number

I use the dot method. By way of example here is the dot method. I show the symbols and highlight the end points to show one side has 2 dots and the other, 1.


Then I show 2 numbers such as 3 and 5 and ask “which is bigger?” In most cases the student indicates 5. I explain that because 5 is bigger it gets the 2 dots and then the 3 gets the 1 dot.

3 dots 5

I then draw the lines to reveal the symbol. This method explicitly highlights the features of the symbol so the symbol can be more effectively interpreted.

3 less than 5.

That is the presentation of the symbol. To address the concept of more, especially for students more severely impacted by a disability, I use the following approach. I ask the parent for a favorite food item of the student, e.g. chicken nuggets. I then show two choices (pretend the nuggets look exactly the same) and prompt the student to make a selection. This brings in their intuitive understanding of more.

concept of more chicken nuggets just plates

I think use the term “more than” by pointing to the plate with more and explain “this plate has more than this other plate.” I go on to use the quantities.

concept of more chicken nuggets more than words

Finally, I introduce the symbol to represent this situation.

concept of more chicken nuggets more than symbol

Below is the example my 3rd grade son used to explain less than to a classmate with autism. This method worked for the classmate!

Lucas less than example

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Opportunities for Parents to Engage Students with Math

Math is often considered an esoteric set of information that is disjointed from the reality people face, aside perhaps from money. Sadly, in school, especially in older grade levels, math is indeed presented this way.

sally math problem

A situation as simple as riding an elevator provides opportunities to show and engage a student with math applied in authentic and common situations. For example, the elevator buttons address counting and cardinality (4 indicates a total of 4 floors – ignoring the R), comparison (if we are on floor 2 and need to go down, which floor do we go to?) and measurement (height above ground floor measured in floors). Such situations also provides opportunities for generalization into other settings – the important settings of every day life!

2019-01-18 18.33.56

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Authentic Activities – Money and Prices

Below is a photo of a typical worksheet for money. I worked with a parent of a high school student severely impacted by autism and she explained that her son worked on nothing but worksheets when he worked on math. For students with more severe disabilities the worksheet is not real or meaningful. The photos and the setting is abstract.


Below is a photo of shelves in a mock grocery store we set up at our school for students who were in a life skills program. They would have a shopping list, collect the items in a basket then compute the total cost. We had a mock register set up (eventually we procured an actual working register) and the students made the same types of calculations they would on a worksheet but in an authentic setting, which was more concrete. We would start with simple money amounts, e.g. $1.00 then make the prices increasingly more challenging, e.g. $1.73.

mock grocery store

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Trick for subtracting integers

I have algebra students, in high school and college, who struggle with evaluating expressions like 2 – 5.  This is a ubiquitous problem.

2-5 problem

I have tried several strategies and the one that is easily the most effective is shown below. When a student is stuck on 2 – 5 the following routine plays out like this consistently.

  • Me: “What is 5 – 2?”
  • Student pauses for a moment, “3”
  • Me: “So what is 2 – 5?”
  • Student pauses, “-3?”
  • Me: Yes!


I implemented this approach because it ties into their prior knowledge of 5 – 2. It also prompts them to analyze the situation – do some thinking.

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