There are various ways to assist students with learning disabilities, depending not only on the nature of the disability, of course, but also on the concepts or theory of learning being used.
This case study looks at a girl with a learning disability called Sarah. She adds two-digit numbers as if they were one digit numbers.
Stated more formally, Sarah adds two-digit numbers without carrying digits forward from the ones column to the tens column, or from the tens to the hundreds column.
Example of Sarah’s homework
This is an example of Sarah’s math homework involving two-digit addition.
Three out of the six problems are done correctly, even though Sarah seems to use an incorrect strategy systematically on all six problems.
Behaviourism: reinforcement for wrong strategies
One possible approach to assist Sarah is based on the behaviourist theory. It seems that Sarah was rewarded so much for adding single-digit numbers (3+5, 7+8 etc.) correctly that she generalised this skill to adding two-digit problems.
Changing Sarah’s behaviour is tricky since the desired behaviour (borrowing correctly) rarely happens and therefore cannot be reinforced very often. It might help for the teacher to reward behaviours that compete directly with Sarah’s inappropriate strategy.
The teacher might reduce credit for simply finding the correct answer and increase credit for a student showing her the work of carrying digits forward correctly. Or the teacher might discuss Sarah’s maths work with Sarah frequently, so as to create more occasions when she can praise Sarah for working problems correctly.
Metacognition and responding reflectively
Part of Sarah’s problem may be that she is thoughtless about doing her maths. The minute she sees numbers on a worksheet, she stuffs them into the first arithmetic procedure that comes to mind. Her learning style seems too impulsive and not reflective enough.
As a solution, the teacher could encourage Sarah to think out loud when she completes two-digit problems-literally get her to ‘talk her way through’ each problem.
Constructivism, mentoring and the zone of proximal development
Perhaps Sarah has in fact learned how to carry digits forward, but not learned the procedure well enough to use it reliably on her own.
In that case her problem can be seen in the constructivist terms. Sarah has lacked appropriate mentoring from someone more expert than herself, someone who can create a ‘zone of proximal development’ in which she can display and consolidate her skills more successfully.
She still needs mentoring or ‘assisted coaching’ more than independent practice. The teacher can arrange some of this in much the way she encourages to be more reflective, either by working with Sarah herself or by arranging for a classmate or even a parent volunteer to do so.