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problems. Information can be represented with numbers, words, and other types

of symbols. Representing information with symbols can be a difficult practice for

students to understand and eventually begin to use themselves. Information is

often represented visually in mathematics as a method of organizing, extending,

or replacing other methods of presentation. Visual representation in mathematics

involves creating and forming models that reflect mathematical information (van

Garderen & Montague, 2003).

Although there are a number of problem solving strategies that students use in

mathematics, good problem solvers usually construct a representation of the

problem to help them comprehend it (van Garderen & Montague, 2003).

Individuals with learning disabilities (LDs) can have an especially challenging

experience solving problems in math, and research suggests that their use of

visual representation strategies differs from their typically-achieving peers in

frequency of use (Montague, 1997), type of visual representations used (van

Garderen & Montague, 2003), and quality of visual representations (van

Garderen, Scheuermann, & Jackson, 2012b). Creating a visual representation to

solve a problem in mathematics is a process that involves processing the

information in the problem, selecting important information, and identifying the

goal of the problem. It may come as no surprise to those familiar with LDs, that

students with LDs struggle with visual representation in mathematics because

they typically have difficulties processing information (Swanson, Lussier, &

Orosco, 2013).

courses increasingly draw on visualization and spatial reasoning skills to solve

problems (Zhang, Ding, Stegall, & Mo, 2012). Additionally, it is simply another

strategy that students can use when they are thinking of the best way to answer

a problem in mathematics.

Perhaps the most consistent message in the literature about visual

representation in mathematics is that it needs to be explicitly taught to students.

Representing information visually is not a skill that comes naturally to students,

and so it must be taught and practiced. When first introducing a new skill to

students, it is important to model the skill in order for them to see how it is used

followed by opportunity for students to try it themselves.

a method of explicit instruction that is supported by research as being effective

for students with learning disabilities (Doabler, Fien, Nelson-Walker, & Baker,

2012; Mancl, Miller, & Kennedy, 2012). The concrete level involves the use of

objects to represent mathematical information (e.g., counters, cubes). The

representational level involves the drawing of pictures to represent the objects

that were used in the previous level, and the abstract level replaces pictures of

objects with mathematical symbols and numbers.

Scaffolding is another approach to teaching visual representation to students with

LDs that is supported by research (van Garderen, Scheuermann, & Jackson,

2012a). Scaffolding involves the use of temporary supports during the learning

process as needed by the student. Providing a student with an incomplete

diagram and having them finish it and then use it to solve a problem is an

example of a scaffolding technique.

Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities,

by Jean Roger Alphonse and Raymond Leblanc.

When you are talking about visual representation in mathematics, you may be

talking about representing information on a page with a diagram or chart, or

representing information in your head with an image. Fortunately, researchers

have focussed on helping students improve their visual representation both

externally (e.g., van Garderen, 2007) and internally (e.g., Zhang et al., 2012).

Developing both external and internal visual representation strategies is

important for students as both help support student learning in mathematics for

different types of problems.

researchers have also outlined differences in visual imagery based on the

purpose. Pictorial imagery is used for representing the visual appearance of

objects or information. Schematic imagery is used for representing the spatial

relationships between objects or information. While both can be used to help

students learn and solve problems in mathematics, schematic imagery is more

effective as a method for supporting problem solving. Students with LDs are

more likely to use pictorial imagery when solving problems in math (van

Garderen & Montague, 2003).

External Visual Representation

Representing visual information in mathematics externally can be done in a

number of ways. While it is possible to represent one set of information using a

range of different visuals, students are usually taught that certain types of visual

representations are better for certain types of information. Diagrams and graphic

organizers are two types of external visual representations that are used in

mathematics, and both are supported by research for use with students with LDs.

This is a type of visual representation that can be modelled to students as it is

something that can be seen on a page or on the board at the front of the class.

DIAGRAMS

Diagrams are visual displays that use the important information in mathematical

problems. They are typically used to demonstrate how the important information

is related, and can be used to organize information as well as to compute the

answer to a problem. A common type of diagram might be a drawing that a

student creates to represent the objects within a word problem. Individuals with

LDs may have a poorer understanding of what a diagram is, as well as when and

how to use it (van Garderen et al., 2012b).

An example of a pictorial diagram would be a drawing of the important objects

within a word problem, while a schematic diagram would be a drawing that

includes the spatial relationships between the objects. As mentioned earlier,

schematic diagrams are more useful for students and typically result in more

success with problem solving (van Garderen & Montague, 2003).

related to an action, and it is often used to teach students probability theory. This

type of diagram might be used to teach students about probability through coin

flipping or through drawing from a deck of cards. It is considered a powerful

method of teaching probability in math, and is a great example of a visual

representation that is a diagram (Kolloffel, Eysink, de Jong, & Wilhelm, 2009).

A number line is another type of diagram that is being used increasingly by

mathematicians (Gersten et al., 2009). A number line consists of a straight line

that has equally spaced numbers along it on points, and can be easily drawn by

students for use when solving problems. Number lines are often used for the

teaching of integers, as well as for simple addition and subtraction problems, as

they provide students with a visual that they can touch to keep track of their

place.

effectiveness of a three-phase instructional strategy for teaching students with

LDs to use diagrams in mathematics:

The first phase involved explicit instruction about what diagrams are, as

well as how and when they are used.

problems, where students created diagrams that represented the

information that they knew and the information that they did not know.

The third phase was focussed on two-step word problems which have

more than one unknown piece of information, and students used diagrams

to determine the ultimate goal of the problem, as well as the secondary

pieces of information that they would need to find in order to compute the

ultimate goal.

Teaching students with LDs to use diagrams with this sequence of explicit

instruction resulted in improved performance, satisfaction of the students, and

students were also more likely to use diagrams with other types of problems.

GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS

used in mathematics. There are many types of graphic organizers andeach have

situations that they are best used for. While graphic organizers are often thought

of simply as organizational tools, they can be used to make rapid inferences to

solve different types of problems. Research supports the idea that students with

language disorders may benefit from learning and instruction using nonverbal

information such as a graphic organizer (Ives, 2007). Additionally, the use of

graphic organizers to support learning has been found to improve the

comprehension of facts and text for students with LDs at all ages (Dexter &

Hughes, 2011), as well as enhancing conceptual understanding in mathematics

(Ives, 2007). Four main types of graphic organizers can be used in mathematics:

a semantic map, a semantic feature analysis, a syntactic/semantic feature

analysis, and a visual display.

A semantic map is one type of graphic organizer that can be used to support

learning in mathematics. This type of graphic organizer is mainly used to relate

conceptual information, and could be used to support conceptual learning in

mathematics. One example might be to use a semantic map to help young

students who are learning to classify shapes into different categories. While

shapes might be the main heading, students might organize shapes into further

sub-heading such as round, symmetrical, right-angle, etc.

organizer is characterized by a matrix format, where features or characteristics of

objects or concepts are displayed. A semantic feature analysis might be used to

compare shapes in geometry, where comparisons could be made between

number of sides, vertices, types of angles, etc.

but sentences are added in to help students identify specific features about each

object. An example sentence that might follow the matrix is A ________ has the

most sides of all of the shapes we have looked at.

mathematics for displaying spatial relationships very clearly. Visual displays can

be used for a number of different purposes. One might make comparisons

between objects or concepts using a Venn diagram, or display information

temporally using a timeline to compute the answer to a word problem.

Though each type of graphic organizer can be used for learning mathematics by

individuals with LDs, the differences in their design suggest that they may be

best used in specific situations. Semantic maps andSemantic feature

analyses are considered to be better for recalling facts though they are more

difficult to understand and to learn how to use (Dexter & Hughes,

2011). Syntactic/semantic feature analyses and visual displays are considered to

be more efficient for making computations to solve problems, and for recalling

the information within these types of graphic organizers (Dexter & Hughes,

2011). The advantages to each type of graphic organizer suggest that initial

instruction of a mathematical concept may be best with more complicated

graphic organizers, and that independent review and studying could be done with

less complicated graphic organizers to improve recall of information for students

with LDs (Dexter & Hughes, 2011).

and graphic organizers. This instruction should highlight the purpose of each type

of external visual representation, as well as when and how to use

them. Diagrams are effective for students with LDs as they can help highlight

essential information and leave out information that is not necessary for solving a

problem. Thiscan simplify the problem-solving process (Kolloffel et al.,

2009). Graphic organizers may be a great support for students with LDs because

they take some of the organizational pressure off these individuals who may

have difficulty sorting through information and seeing the relationships between

different mathematical objects or concepts (Ives, 2007). Both types of external

visual representations can be easily modelled for students as educators can

physically construct them and explain their thinking as they do so in front of

students.

While external visual representation can be easy to model and teach explicitly to

students, internal visual representation is not as easy to show students as it is a

mental exercise. A visual schematic representation involves the creation or recall

of visual imagery to represent information. Students are often asked to visualize

the problem in order to better understand it and solve it. This can be a difficult

task for students and it should not be assumed that this is a skill that all students

already possess. To create a mental picture when solving a word problem in

math, students must combine information from the problem with their prior

knowledge of the topic. While students cannot see the mental images that their

teachers create, it is still possible to walk students through the process of

creating the mental image as a verbal model, or even to draw images of what

they are seeing in their head to make it more explicit.

One strategy that teachers can use to support their students with LDs in creating

internal visual representations is known as visual-chunking representation.

Chunking is the practice of combining bits of information that are related in some

way in order to reduce the overall amount of information for easier processing.

For students with LDs, a reduction in the amount of information to be processed

can make exercises such as math problem solving much easier. A group of

researchers examined one method of visual-chunking for students with difficulties

in math, where students were working with geometric shapes and

transformations (Zhang et al., 2012). One group received series of nets of

geometric shapes, while another group received the same nets, though sections

had been shaded or chunked in an effort to see if it made a difference in their

transformations. The group that received the visual-chunking support performed

better than the other group, and found the exercise to be easier when provided

with the visual-chunking support (Zhang et al., 2012).

2012) developed an intervention to support students with LDs as they solve

problems in mathematics. The intervention was aimed at explicitly instructing

students about the cognitive processes that proficient problem solvers use in

math, including visualization. The intervention was delivered by teachers who

were trained to follow a sequence of instruction that included teaching visualizing

to the students. The intervention involved the teachers thinking aloud as they

progressed through the stages of the problem solving process. Students who

were a part of the intervention reported using more strategies when solving

problems in math, including the strategy of visualizing the problem (Krawec et al.,

2012).

with specific difficulties in math, which can include LDs (Swanson et al., 2013).

Instructing students about how to create internal visual representations can be

difficult as it does not easily lend itself to explicit instructional techniques. Despite

this challenge, teachers can still support the development of this skill by creating

diagrams of their mental images as well as by thinking aloud as they are

visualizing while problem solving.

Considerations

The use of visual representation during instruction and learning tends to be an

effective practice across a number of subjects, including mathematics (Gersten

et al., 2009). While using visual representation alone as a teaching method does

produce significant learning improvements for students in mathematics, these

improvements are even greater when other teaching methods are used as well

(Gersten et al., 2009). Having students represent mathematical information

verbally and in written form along with visual representation is encouraged. For

students with LD, both receiving instruction and solving problems in a number of

ways will help support their deeper understanding of concepts and operations in

mathematics (Suh & Moyer, 2007).

The importance of using explicit instruction to teach students how to make visual

representations cannot be overstated. The CRA method is an example of an

effective sequence of explicitly instructing students with LD to use visual

representation as a step towards the use of mathematical symbols exclusively

(Mancl et al., 2012). There are many types of diagrams (Kolloffel et al., 2009) and

graphic organizers (Dexter & Hughes, 2011) that can be effectively used support

students with LD in mathematics. While internal visual representation can be

difficult to model, strategies do exist that can support students with LD as they

develop this skill (Zhang et al., 2012). Educators are encouraged to use a

combination of external and internal visual representation strategies in their

instruction to students in the interest of helping students develop both types of

skills.

An Instructional Strategy for Math", by Kathryn Garforth and Linda Siegel.

Additional Resource

The following LD@school summary provide strategies for students from

Kindergarten to grade 6 who use concrete materials.

Understand the Principle of Tens", by Nicole Lauzon.

Other Resource

Click here to access the Cited Research Center website, Center for

Implementing Technology in Education: Multimedia Technologies.

References

Dexter, D. D., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Graphic organizers and students with

learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34, 51-72.

Doabler, C. T., Fien, H., Nelson-Walker, N. J., & Baker, S. K. (2012). Evaluating

three elementary mathematics programs for presence of eight research-based

instructional design principles. Learning Disability Quarterly, 35, 200-211.

Gersten, R., Chard, D. J., Jayanthi, M., Baker, S. K., Morphy, P., & Flojo, J.

(2009). Mathematics instruction for students with learning disabilities: A meta-

analysis of instructional components. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1202-

1242.

students with learning disorders. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 22,

110-118.

Kolloffel, B., Eysink, T. H., de Jong, T., & Wilhelm, P. (2009). The effects of

representational format on learning combinatorics from an interactive computer

simulation. Instructional Science, 37, 503-517.

Krawec, J., Huang, J., Montague, M., Kressler, B., Melia de Alba, A. (2012). The

effects of cognitive strategy instruction on knowledge of math problem-solving

processes of middle school students with learning disabilities. Learning

Disabilities Quarterly, 36, 80-92.

Mancl, D. B., Miller, S. P., & Kennedy, M. (2012). Using the concrete-

representational-abstract sequence with integrated strategy instruction to teach

subtraction with regrouping to students with learning disabilities.Learning

Disabilities Research & Practice, 27, 152-166.

with learning disabilities.Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 164177.

using virtual and physical algebra balances. Journal of Computers in

Mathematics and Science Teaching, 26, 155-173.

Swanson, H. L., Lussier, C., & Orosco, M. (2013). Effects of cognitive strategy

interventions and cognitive moderators on word problem solving in children at

risk for problem solving difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 28,

170-183.

mathematical word problems.Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 540-553.

mathematical problem solving, and students of varying abilities. Learning

Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 246-254.

representational ability in mathematics for students with learning disabilities: A

content analysis of grades 6 and 7 textbooks.Learning Disability Quarterly, 35,

24-38.

van Garderen, D., Scheuermann, A., & Jackson, C. (2012b). Examining how

students with diverse abilities use diagrams to solve mathematics word

problems. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 36, 145-160.

Zhang, D., Ding, Y., Stegall, J., & Mo, L. (2012). The effect of visual-chunking-

representation accommodation on geometry testing for students with math

disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 27, 167-177.

Method

Searches were conducted of the literature for content appropriate for this topic

that was published in scientific journals and other academic sources. The search

included online database searches (ERIC, PsycINFO, Queens Summons, and

Google Scholar). The gathered materials were checked for relevance by

analysing data in this hierarchical order: (a) titles; (b) abstracts; (c) method; and

(d) entire text.

Relevant journals archives were also hand-searched between issues from 2010

and the most recent issues. These journals included Learning Disability

Quarterly, Journal of Learning Disabilities, and Learning Disabilities Research &

Practice.

Ian Matheson is entering his second year in the PhD program in Education at

Queen's University with a focus in Learning and Cognition. Ian has spent the last

two years working as an occasional teacher with the Limestone District School

Board where he is certified with the OCT as an elementary school teacher. He is

currently involved with the Continuing Teacher Education Centre at Queen's

University where he is an instructor for an Additional Qualifications course.

Education at Queens University. Her research has focused on teaching students

with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing

workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and

those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her

research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative

research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on

transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on

inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as

doctoral seminars on social cognition and masters courses on topics including

learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six

editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular

classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.

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