Tag Archives: CRA

Information Processing Analogy – Big Picture

Effective instruction is effective because it addresses the key elements of how the brain processes information. I want to share an analogy to help adults (parents and educators) fully appreciate this.

Below is a model of information processing first introduced to me in a master’s course at UCONN.

Here is a summary of what is shown in the model.

  1. Our senses are bombarded by external stimuli: smells, images, sounds, textures and flavors.
  2. We have a filter that allows only some of these stimuli in. We focus on the ones that are most interesting or relevant to us.
  3. Our working memory works to make sense of the stimuli and to package it for storage. Our working memory is like a computer, if there is too much going on, working memory will buffer.
  4. The information will be stored in long term memory.
    • Some will be dropped off in some random location and our brain will forget the location (like losing our keys)
    • Some will be stored in a file cabinet in a drawer with other information just like it. This information is easier to find.

Here is the analogy. You are driving down the street, like the one shown below.

There is a lot of visual stimuli. The priority is for you to pay attention to the arrows for the lanes, the red light and the cars in front of you. You have to process your intended direction and choose the lane.

There is other stimuli that you filter out because it is not pertinent to your task: a car parked off to the right, the herbie curbies (trash bins), the little white arrows at the bottom of the photo. There is extraneous info you may allow to pass through your filter because it catches your eye: the ladder on the right or the cloud formation in the middle.

Maybe you are anxious because you are running late or had a bad experience that you are mulling over. This is using up band width in your working memory. Maybe you are a relatively new driver and simple driving tasks eat up the bandwidth as well.

For students with a disability that impacts processing or attention, the task demands described above are even more challenging. A student with ADHD has a filter that is less effective. A student with autism (a rule follower type) may not understand social settings such as a driver that will run a red light that just turned red. A student with visual processing issues may struggle with picking out the turn arrows.

Effective instruction would address these challenges proactively. Here is a video regarding learning disabilities (LD) that summarizes the need in general for teachers to be highly responsive to student needs. Here is a great video that helps makes sense of what autism in terms of how stimuli can be received by those with autism (look for the street scene). Here is a video of a researcher explaining how ADHD responds to sensory input (he gets to a scenario that effectively encapsulates ADHD).

To address these challenges:

Ironically, this is likely a lot of information for your brain to process…

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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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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.

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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).

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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.

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Simplifying Expressions (Combine Like Terms)

Simplifying expressions (see photo below) is one of the most challenging algebra tasks for many students receiving special education services. A major problem is that it is typically presented as symbol manipulation…addressed in very symbolic form.

combine like terms

My approach is to make math relevant and more concrete. Below is a scaffolded handout I use to help unpack the concept. In the handout I start with items the student intuitively understands, tacos and burritos or tacos and dollar bills. In the top left of this handout the student is asked how many tacos he or she has. 3 tacos eventually is written as 3T. See next photo to see how the handout is completed as NOTES for the students.

simplifying expressions tacos

As I work with the problems below I remind the student that the “T” stands for taco so “3T” stands for 3 tacos. This takes the student back to a more concrete understanding of what the symbols mean.

simplifying expressions tacos completed

To address negatives I use photos of eating a taco or burrito. “-2T” is eating 2 tacos.

So “3T – 2T” means I have 3 tacos and ate 2. I have 1 taco left… 1T. For students who may need an even more concrete representation, use actual tacos or other edible items.

simplifying expressions tacos with negatives


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Visuals Aid Memory

This research has major implications for math for students with special needs…but some of us already knew this!

brain memory

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Snow Math

2017-03-14 10.03.23

Here’s a common word problem used for linear functions and equations (y=mx+b):

There are 6 inches of snow on the ground. Snow is falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour. Write a linear equation showing total snow as a function of time (in hours). The equation would be y=2x + 6.

Often the word problems like this are presented on a sheet of paper in isolation as an attempt to make the math relevant and to develop conceptual understanding. For students who have trouble with conceptual understanding, words on paper are likely too abstract or symbolic to allow applications like the one above to be meaningful.

The real life application is useful if presented more effectively. Here’s an approach to use the same scenario but in a more relevant and meaningful presentation. The photo above shows the current amount of snow – call it 6 inches. Students can be shown the photo to allow for a discussion about accumulation and for their estimates of the amount of snow shown. The photo below shows an excerpt from a storm warning. Showing this warning and a snow fall video can allow for a discussion about rate of snow fall and the purpose for storm warnings. Combined, this approach can lead into the above word problem.

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Once the application is presented students can be asked to compute snow levels after 1 hour, 2 hours etc. Then they can be asked to determine how long it would take for the accumulation to reach 18 inches (the prediction for the day this post was composed). After computing the answers WITHOUT the equation the students can be shown how to use the equation – the “mathy way.”

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Zone of Proximal Development


The photo above shows 3 levels of task demands for children based on Vygotsky’s levels of development.

  • On the left is a level in which the student can readily perform the task independently, i.e. he is doing something he already knows how to do.
  • On the right is a level that is too challenging for the student to accomplish independently. It is something he cannot do and does not know how to do.
  • In the middle is a sweet spot. The level involves tasks that are accessible to the student but with support – scaffolding.

In reading this is known as the “instructional level” – see photo below. Reading material is evaluated by determining how challenging it is for a student. Material that the student can read independently allows for some growth in reading ability. Material that the student finds too challenging would not allow for substantive growth. In the middle is the sweet spot – the Zone of Proximal Development.

Instructional Level

We can do the same with math using scaffolding. In the photo below is work performed by a former 7th grade student of mine with Asperger’s who tested at a 1st grade math level. I used colored pencils and 2 sided tokens to support his work with integers (red for negative and yellow for positive) in a CRA approach. The color coding and tokens were like the swimmies in the photo above of the child in the ZPD. Eventually these supports were faded. Throughout this process I was constantly pressing him to do more with a little less assistance.

adding integers chips and colored pencils

I want to emphasize 2 major points regarding this.

  • Substantive learning occurs when a student has to step beyond his or her current ability level – the ZPD.
  • Often in schools educators avoid this, especially for students with special needs, because we want students to be engaged and successful (in the short term). We often confuse being active with learning. The guy on the tricycle in the top photo was performing a task but was he learning? (Note: this is not a student with special needs but a guy having some fun.)

Here’s are a video that fleshes out this idea.

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Factoring Numbers


Factoring, as used in elementary school,  is the act of changing a number into numbers that multiply to produce the original number. For example, 12 can be factored to 3×4. 3 and 4 are called factors of 12.

In the photo above, a “factor tree” is used to help identify the factors. I have often seen the factor tree used as the initial approach to teaching factors. I’ve also seen it used as the primary means of providing intervention for students struggling with factoring.  Think about that. Students who didn’t understand the initial instruction that likely involved the mathy approach shown above were provided the SAME approach.

Math topics can be presented with a more concrete introduction which can allow for more in-depth understanding. The photo below shows a CRA approach to factoring. This approach can be used as part of UDL or as an instructional strategy for intervention.





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Corresponding Angles in Stain Glass


Found this (above) cool example of corresponding angles (see photo below for explanation). This window photo could be a nice introduction to this type of problem by printing it out on paper and having students match angles as the teacher shows the photo on the Smart Board or screen.


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