Written by Olivia Cowin
In many ways, mathematics is an intersection of two languages. Names derived from the meaning of Latin or Greek roots and affixes are assigned to mathematical symbols; these symbols are themselves strung together following the rules and conventions of an overarching structure. Without using direct and explicit instruction, as with our Orton-Gillingham approach for reading, many students get lost in the translation of math.
The difficulties faced by students are not surprising when much of conventional math instruction begins at an abstract level and relies heavily on rote memorization of procedures. The multisensory math approach, in contrast, begins at a concrete level. Multiple sensory inputs are used to build associations in and between various areas of the brain, and the use of manipulatives help students build deeper levels of understanding about the concepts. Representations of the concrete are then used as mental reminders for students to draw upon when they begin to work at the abstract, symbolic level. Incremental and cumulative instruction gives the student the knowledge base needed to understand why specific procedures are used instead of a reliance on rote memorization as their default approach to all math problems.
Imagine trying to understand as a student the difference between three and thirty without ever experiencing either quantity. Thirty is written numerically by placing the symbol for three in front of the symbol for zero, while three is a symbol itself; these numbers cannot fully express the magnitude of difference between the two quantities for the student. However, place three objects in one pile and thirty identical objects in another, and the magnitude of place value becomes tangible.