Math and CVI: Ideas for a multisensory approach

Find examples and resources that came out of the Math and CVI study group's second discussion about how to make math more accessible and fun for learners with CVI

Girl eats at the table with her iPad and a black sland board with numbers and cubes

We’re on a path of inquiry to figuring out strategies and approaches that can help make math more accessible for learners with CVI. The Math and CVI study group held its second discussion where parents, teachers, and individuals with CVI shared ideas around how to make math accessible and fun. 

Check out Matt Tietjen’s presentation on Visualizing Math: Considerations for Students with CVI and a summary of the study group’s first discussion.  

Ideas and tools for a multisensory approach to teaching math 

Fostering a growth mindset for math

Math is hard for many students with CVI. Math is so visual and math materials (worksheets, textbooks, online tools) are often complex. But it’s more than that, these barriers to access might show kids with CVI that they’ll never be good at math. So without a growth mindset that they can learn math, tools and adaptations only go so far.

It’s essential for our students to understand that their intelligence is not fixed, but that they can learn and grow. Most importantly, I feel like we can make all these materials accessible for our students with CVI, but until they’re ready to learn in the right mindset, these tools are not going to help them.

Sue Sullivan, Math and Technology Teacher at Perkins School for the Blind

Start with the right mindset, create the right environment to learn math, and add an element of fun.

Key takeaways from Sue Sullivan’s presentation on CVI and Math Teaching. (Access the video transcript here.)

When my students say they don’t like math, I think what they don’t like is the uncomfortable feeling that comes with learning math. And if we could ease that uncomfortableness, then they will enjoy the mathematics classroom and learning math so much more. 

Sue Sullivan, Math and Technology Teacher at Perkins School for the Blind

Music as a bridge to understanding mathematical concepts

Strings on a guitar helped Nai, an adult with CVI, conceptualize fractions. Being able to feel the guitar strings and each fret and how it was a percentage of the whole neck solidified the concept for Nai. The musical component reinforced their understanding because the fractions are audible as relationships. 

From Nai’s blog post, On music as a pathway to math:

“From the guitar, I was also able to build an internal sense of number lines, and fractions, because I could think of them kinesthetically as the guitar strings and the frets as the intervals. The corresponding musical intervals also helped reinforce thinking in terms of fractions, since all musical intervals can be expressed as fractions as well. The guitar neck laid a foundation so that I could later grasp spatial concepts like points on an X axis and Y axis on a Cartesian graph, which without the help of the guitar neck serving as a kinesthetic-tactile base, would have surely fallen into my aphantasic void. More than once, I was caught playing air-guitar in math class. They mistook it for distraction, when in fact it was my way of grasping the mathematical concepts. 

Music can be a powerful tool to bridge CVIers to understanding many mathematical concepts that usually pull on very visual thinking. Research has shown that internal number lines and such are usually stored in the visual parts of the brain. I suspect that the guitar was the cognitive bridge that allowed me to store my internal number sense in the auditory and tactile parts of my brain.”

Learn about other approaches that made math accessible to Nai: On Math and CVI.

Snack Math 

By Stephanie, a CVI Parent

We have been working a lot with our 8-year-old daughter, Sam, on number sense and math concepts since our first math and CVI study group meeting. I wanted to share the materials and approaches we are using to learn counting, numerals, sequence, etc.

As with many children with CVI, my daughter is a multi-sensory learner. She requires 3D objects along with a lot of hands-on interaction to build familiarity. 

We started by having her get familiar with jumbo Unifix cubes (smaller ones are a choking hazard), just playing with them and stacking them. 

We then used snack time to work on Math. Snack is super yummy and exciting for her, and we knew it would be important to make math fun, interesting, motivating, meaningful and relevant. She has done some “Snack Math” at school and so I wanted to see what we could do at home. 

We started viewing and tracing the tactile numerals, starting with 1, as Sam is familiar with the phrase “just one.” We used the instructional sequencing steps referenced in Linda Mood-Bell’s book On Cloud Nine (concrete, use manipulatives; imagery, language to help visualize math concepts; computation, apply math to problem-solving): 

  • Explored one manipulative (the Unifix cube)
  • Traced and viewed the number 1 (sandpaper numeral)
  • Used salient feature language [describing visual attributes] (Roman-Lantzy)
  • Then she picked one snack item. 

We then increased to 2, and we are working on 3. Slow and steady. 

Sam is using her vision (to see the numbers) and then her pointer finger (to point to the number while she looks away).

She is able to answer the question, “Point to the numeral _____ (1,2,3)” after the series of visualization steps—manipulatives to visualize and feel “one”, tracing to visualize and feel “one” and after she answers the “show me/point to” question, she takes the amount of food she has been working on (i.e., 2 yogurt covered raisins). Note: As Matt Tietjen suggested, when using multiple Unifix cubes, I alternate colors for greater ease in counting and visualizing. 

Girl eats at the table with her iPad and a black sland board with numbers and cubes

While doing “Snack Math” Sam is smiling and focused as we learn, and that is so essential. She is having fun! She smiles so big when she gets the answer right. I am so proud of her and excited to teach more, and see Sam showing me all that she knows!

The materials:

Girls smiles at her mom who is clapping for her. A black slant board with numbers is on a table

A tactile approach to understanding the abstract concept of timelines

From Katie, a CVI parent

“My 12-year-old CVIer benefits from a tactile representation of number lines. She had such a hard time visualizing the number line. And we’ve learned from Matt Tietjen’s presentation that visualizing or imagining math is a part of learning math concepts. When I saw how helpful a tactile approach was for her to internalize and understand a number line, I thought about her challenges with timelines.

She loves history, and we’ve had a long piece of paper with the centuries on it in the kitchen for years. When she learns something new, for example about the Vikings, I show where it occurred on the timeline. After our first CVI and math discussion, I gave my daughter beads and told her each one is one hundred years. She strung them onto a necklace and used her strong verbal and tactile skills to talk through what it meant to have a first century, second century, and so on, and then one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years, and so on. She was very excited to make the connection that had previously eluded her: the fifth century contains the years that are in the 400s. She relies on verbal and auditory skills to memorize things, especially abstract concepts, and the words “fifth century” and “four hundreds” were very confusing. She had also never really understood what the words “twelve-hundred” meant in numbers, or where on the timeline to find a word-heavy number like “sixteen twenty-seven.” 

As soon as we explored a timeline with beads as centuries, I realized she did not know there was the same amount of time between the years 0 CE and 1000 CE as between 1000 CE and 2000 CE. She had based her understanding of the timeline (number line) on the one we had made in our kitchen, which is visual and has more physical distance between 1600 and 2000 than the rest of “time” (we have more historical events to fit into this time period, so it is expanded). Touching the beads, she was amazed to see how recently our country was founded, how long the Roman empire lasted and posed questions about how many years existed before the year 0 CE. 

We have discussed these topics for years but she had nothing to hang the information on—no internal number line. We then spent a week making bead strings that are large enough to feel each century easily that she references now. I can pause a documentary and we take our time touching the timeline beads to find where an event approximately occurred. My daughter is relieved and excited to have this tool to understand timelines. My typically-sighted kid also loved this project.”

A kid strings a line of chunky, homemade, painted beads. A kid wears a necklace made of large, colorful, homemade beads.

Other resources shared in the math and CVI study group

Yalissa walks down a sidewalk with a female Perkins staff member.

How do you center CVI in O&M assessments? Strategies for CVI and O&M: Part 3

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A young adult dressed in black with a black cap stands outside with his O&M instructor. They both are smiling holding white canes.

How does O&M address CVI visual behaviors? CVI and O&M: Part 2

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Millie turns toward the entrance of the Lower school using a walker.

A guide to O&M program planning for the CVI student. CVI and O&M: Part 4

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