It is important to allow multisensory maths to be taught to children with special educational needs (SEN) for as long as they need, argues Jane Kendall. Here she offers some practical suggestions for how

Working with children who find maths difficult can become a ‘mission impossible’ if the adults involved with those children are not aware that there are alternative ways of helping them to learn and understand maths. In my experience – (long and varied!) – I have found that the best approach for these children from Year 1 right up to secondary age is to simply ‘start again’ using multisensory, hands on methods and concrete experiences.

I am not an academic mathematician, and I have approached the teaching of maths to struggling children from an alternative angle. Amazingly, despite having a good GCE in maths, I only really understood the importance of place value when I had been working closely with a group of learning support children from Year 6 early in my teaching career. I do not want to trivialise the importance of maths by calling it ‘fun’ – but there is a real need to find a way of making the process of learning maths more enjoyable and meaningful for all concerned.

Enjoying something means being able to participate with confidence and take pleasure from the experience. One does not have to be a mountaineer to derive pleasure from walking up a hill! We seem to lose the meaning of enjoying learning when we try to get all children to achieve the same end result at the same time.

I worked with a particular group of eight Year 6s for two terms. They began with me at a P7/8 level in the September as they were unable to be catered for in the two sets of Year 6 maths – and there really was no possibility of me ‘catching them up’ for SATs!

So we simply began again with a set of concrete resources for each child. We worked from the beginning – counting, using basic language, simple response, gaining speed and internalised knowledge about basic numeracy, maths vocabulary and maths skills. Everything was approached in a multisensory way and every session began with similar activities – developing the speed of response which is necessary for children to be able to draw on known facts. Most importantly, without the pressure of their peers, the children began to enjoy the lessons. There was no stigma to having the concrete resources to hand, or to taking time at the end of our sessions to share what they had learned or found difficult. Consequently, there was no need for tests. To my delight they achieved levels 2A or 2B by the beginning of the summer term – and they had taken ownership of their learning and achievements.

By adopting the term ‘dyscalculia’ – meaning at its basic level ‘difficulty with numbers’ – we are in danger of giving children and adults an excuse for not being able to do maths.  There are children who are truly dyscalculic – a small percentage of each school – but the majority are suffering from being left behind when the maths lessons start to be taught at an increasingly abstract level from Year 1 onwards.

Concrete level of understanding
I have worked with children from Reception up to Year 6 and early secondary. There are children who still prefer to have concrete apparatus available to help them to make sense of maths even at Year 7, and they should be encouraged to use it. From Year 1 onwards I encourage children to ask themselves what they think will help them to solve a particular task – fingers, bricks, number line, ‘Can you do it in your head?’, etc, and it is this ownership of learning that I think is the most important way of increasing self-esteem.

It is the transference of working from the concrete level of understanding into the abstract that has intrigued me. We have no reliable baseline assessment that can be used to diagnose such understanding. Most children are able to work in the abstract around the age of 7, but  some will continue to need the support of concrete apparatus and methods until Year 5 or 6, and there may be some entering secondary school who would benefit from starting again. And the truly dyscalculic children who are unable to work with numerical concepts will need to continue with alternative teaching methods throughout school.

It is very difficult to screen children for dyscalculia. Children may get answers wrong because they have applied a method incorrectly – or it may be wrong because they do not have a grasp of what is being asked. The term dyscalculia is being used to cover both children who are late to move from concrete understanding to abstract and also those children who, in my opinion are truly dyscalculic. In early schooling it is difficult to separate the two.

There are indicators which give early clues to both late development and dyscalculia, and I think the most productive way of screening children is to train the TAs who are working with the ‘support’ groups to identify these children early and ensure that they are working at a meaningful level. A message I always give to TAs is  – ‘Beware of Death by Worksheet’!  Commercial worksheets tend to be a ‘best fit’ and many are not designed at a level that is personal enough for support groups. If children have to have the sheet read to them, or if they need the TA to explain what to do again, the sheet is inappropriate and the child would be better served by being given some concrete experience at his level of understanding in order to consolidate, internalise and gain speed of use of that skill.

Independent work
We need to provide the experience of ‘normal’ independent working for all children – in other words, activities that they can settle down to before asking for help, activities that children can ‘use and apply’ to problem solving in real life situations, activities that they can share with other children to demonstrate their understanding, and activities that they can talk about at home in order to help parents to understand how maths is being taught today.

Speaking to parents, teachers, SENCOs, maths specialists and headteachers across the country, I find that their main concern about children being taught methods which digress from the old fashioned ones is that children will remain dependent on concrete apparatus and become over-reliant on it. However, what I have found is that if children are taught to select a secure method before they begin to work they will automatically ‘wean’ themselves off concrete methods and materials as their confidence and understanding increases.

Children who fall into the ‘can’t do’ category must be allowed to learn maths using multisensory learning for as long as they feel they need to. No child will continue to count using bricks, or using their fingers as soon as they ‘know’ that 2 + 3 = 5. But if they do need to use something, there is no benefit to withdrawing apparatus, teaching them abstract methods and tricks, and causing anxiety by testing them.

Alternative methods
Maths as an academic subject was developed by mathematicians – who are notorious in their ability to think in the abstract! The children who find maths tricky are those children who require learning opportunities at the concrete level for far longer than we have traditionally allowed. They need to use visual and kinaesthetic methods to ensure that the maths makes sense and there are other options for learning tables, and working with numbers to 100! Just because the traditional methods have always been used does not mean we have to continue to use them for the children who would benefit from an alternative method.

Some practical ideas for multisensory maths

  • A few minutes’ daily practice with digit cards to ‘wake up your brain’ – using and overlearning all the basic maths skills and vocabulary – more, less, double, half, bonds to 10, 20, etc, until the responses are automatic
  • A few minutes’ speedy recording on a white board – written responses to known spoken vocabulary and mental working
  • Teach numbers up to and beyond 100 using a vertical number line which corresponds to maths language, and allows the difference between numbers to be more meaningful than it is using a 100 square
  • Teach tables by using horizontal number lines to enable the children to learn to count in multiples – so that 4 x 6 can be accessed by using four fingers as a reminder and count along 6, 12, 18, 24. It is just as quick as the traditional method and can be used for division just as easily
  • Teach the lesson content by ‘hear it, see it, say it, write it’ and wherever possible ‘do it’ – eg understanding capacity and scales both need water and jugs!
  • End every lesson by allowing children time to use both new and established vocabulary, explain their understanding of new concepts and most importantly reward them for saying what they still do not understand. Children love to be allowed to say that I did not teach something well enough for them to have properly understood it!


To provide a more successful way of dealing with the issues of homework – and to avoid parents doing it for their children in order to get them to bed – I ask children to ‘go home and show Mum what they have learned today’ – this gives them the consolidation time they need, the opportunity to use the maths language they are acquiring, it gives the parents an opportunity to keep up with today’s maths, and it ensures that the homework can, and will, be done by the children.

TA and parent support
TAs and parents also need to be trained, and to be encouraged to have confidence in their own abilities. Too often in my training sessions I am confronted by TAs who say they hated maths at school – and they will make for the seat furthest away from me before we start! By the end of the session the general feeling is that they wished they had been taught maths by a non- mathematician many years ago.

There is no benefit to a TA helping a child to complete an inappropriate worksheet – far better to give children the time to work at early skills so that all future work is built on firm foundations. And there is no benefit to a parent doing a child’s homework – better to send a note back to school saying for how long the child managed to work independently.

I am firmly convinced that by watching our children working, listening to their use of vocabulary and allowing them to demonstrate what they are doing by using simple, accessible concrete apparatus, they will show us what they know, explain what they do not understand and approach new concepts with more confidence. So start again – go back to the very beginning – let children enjoy learning and let the reward be known… ‘Now I can do maths!’

Maths resource books

  • Bird, R (2007) The Dyscalculia Toolkit. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
  • Butterworth, B and Yeo, D (2004) Dyslexia and Maths. (A BDA/Fulton publication) London: David Fulton.
  • Butterworth, B and Yeo, D (2004) Dyscalculia Guidance: Helping Pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties. Windsor: NFER Nelson.
  • Chinn, S (2004) The Trouble with Maths: A Practical Guide to Helping Learners with Numeracy Difficulties. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Chinn, S and Ashcroft, R (2007) Mathematics for Dyslexics, including Dyscalculia 3rd edition. London: Wiley.
  • Clausen-May, T (2005) Teaching Maths to Pupils with Different Learning Styles. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
  • Hannell, G (2005) Dyscalculia: Action Plans for Successful Learning in Mathematics. London: David Fulton Publishing.
  • Miles, T and Miles, E (2004) Dyslexia and Mathematics 2nd edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Jane Kendall is the developer of the Number Box (see below) and Five Minute Box maths teaching systems

Number Box

Number Box is a Wave 3 numeracy resource developed by Jane Kendall for TAs to use with individual children to establish basic concepts of numeracy, or to support groups of children who are not yet working with abstract concepts. The resource is based on principles laid out in the National Numeracy Strategy and can be used from ‘P levels to level 2B’. It uses multisensory teaching methods, it comes complete with materials, record of achievement recording booklets, and instruction guide. For further information go to the web address given above.

Tel: 01442 878629