4 colorful math symbols: plus, minus, times and divide.
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Adapting math symbols: Math problems and low vision

Low vision students may have trouble identifying math symbols. Here are strategies for adapting math symbols, focusing on visual materials.

Elementary school math lessons introduce arithmetic and math symbols to students as they learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, which can be challenging for students with low vision that find it difficult to tell the difference between different types of math symbols. At one point, I struggled so much with identifying math symbols with low vision that I was tested for dyscalculia or a math disability to determine if I had trouble actually doing math, or with seeing it printed on a page. Through this testing, I learned that my low vision and dysgraphia played a major role in my ability to solve math equations correctly, and it was important that I find strategies for adapting math symbols so that I could see them. Here are my tips for adapting math symbols for large print materials, part of my Math Problems for Low Vision series that covers topics related to math accessibility.

Why are math symbols hard to see?

When I started experiencing a vision decline in elementary school, I was regularly confusing arithmetic signs like plus, minus, multiply, and divide. I would see “3 ⁕ 3” written out but couldn’t see the “⁕” sign, so I would take a guess over what the sign said instead of asking for help – I figured that all of the other students saw things like I did, so I didn’t think that my eyes could be the problem. As a result, I would get a lot of questions wrong because I thought the equation would say “3 + 3” and write 6, or “3 ÷ 3” and write 1. I couldn’t understand why the teacher would mark it wrong, because I knew 3+3 was 6, but I had no idea that wasn’t what the question actually said and that I was confusing math symbols.

Some examples of symbol confusions that my friends and I experienced as young students with low vision include:

Everyone who shared these examples of struggling with math symbols has gone on to be successful in advanced math classes at the high school and college level, taking subjects such as statistics, calculus, trigonometry, linear algebra, and more; I’m still very proud of passing accelerated Calculus 2/Analytic Geometry on the first try when I was in college. Acknowledging that certain math symbols were difficult to read made it possible for teachers or other staff to find ways to display materials in a way that the students could read, as well as provide opportunities for practicing assistive technology.

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Add a color-coded underline or math symbol for practice

One of the strategies a math tutor used to help me correctly identify math symbols was to add a colored underline or rewrite the symbol in a different color so that I could use color as a secondary labeling tool. For example, the math tutor would have me write out or underline a green plus sign and a purple multiplication sign, so I didn’t confuse the two. Whenever I received a worksheet in class, I would take out my colored pens and enlarge the symbols with my phone or a magnifier and underline them or rewrite them so I didn’t have to do this one math problem at a time. Some students shared that their teachers would do this for them so they didn’t have to spend time doing it, but this was not an option for me.

Of course, my paper-based math standardized tests did not come with this accommodation and there’s no way I can use my phone in those environments, so I had to underline or draw the symbols on my own if I wanted to use this strategy. However, I did have an approved accommodation where I could ask the proctor to read me a math problem, or to confirm what symbol I was looking at, as well as access to a handheld magnifier.

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Write text labels for symbols if needed

Another strategy that I used more frequently in college was to add text labels underneath symbols or to rewrite the problem as a word problem. Instead of using color as a secondary labeling tool, I would write the name of the symbol or have someone else identify the symbol and write it out for me. I started doing this for a discrete math class after I noticed that I had trouble telling the difference between O, 0, Q, and several Greek letters on the paper-based or PDF copies of classwork. My professor would often read problems during class, so I would write out what they were saying or zoom in with a video magnifier to identify symbols more easily. I wish I had started doing this sooner, because it would have been very helpful for multi-step problems in elementary school.

My friend shared that their Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) used this strategy when they were first learning to identify math symbols, and would sometimes include audio recordings of their voice or a synthesized voice reading the equation out loud.

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Copy the problem with a larger font size

Even though my IEP and college disability accommodations would list a minimum font size for large print materials, I discovered over time that I actually needed a larger font size for science and math. Math is a visually challenging subject that requires me to use my vision much more frequently compared to other subjects; for example, I can read a few letters of a word in English and guess what the word is based on context, but for math I have to read every single number, letter, and symbol in order to grasp the full meaning of the problem I am working on and solve it appropriately. If I make a mistake with reading even a single number or symbol, the problem will be incorrect.

With this information in mind, I would get math problems enlarged at a larger font size, or draw symbols larger on the page so that I would be able to see them. Sometimes I can focus my eyes and strain to read symbols in a smaller font size than what is listed in my accommodations, but this isn’t sustainable and can lead to visual fatigue setting in even faster than normal. Having math problems enlarged can also make it easier for me to identify symbols independently instead of having to rely on other visual strategies.

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Hand write equations on a whiteboard

I find it easier to write on a whiteboard than a piece of paper with low vision, because I can position it at an angle to write on a slanted surface, easily erase mistakes, and I feel like I can also write larger on a whiteboard compared to paper. Rewriting equations on a whiteboard has been one of my favorite strategies for math, and I can also write symbols larger or in different colors. Another bonus is that only one math problem at a time is displayed on a whiteboard, compared to having multiple items on a page.

After I finish writing on a whiteboard, I can either copy the answer or scratch work more neatly onto my assignment, or scan a copy of the whiteboard with Microsoft Lens and upload it to a digital assignment. In lieu of a whiteboard, I’ve also used a digital whiteboard with a stylus to work out problems or write them larger.

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Practice reading problems out loud before solving them

When I took a summer math class, I was asked to read problems out loud before getting ready to solve them, because this provided an opportunity for me to make sure I had read the problem correctly and that I knew what I was looking at. This was also helpful during tutoring sessions, especially when they took place at night and my double vision was more difficult to control, because I would frequently miss problems due to not reading them correctly. Even when taking tests, I will silently read a problem to myself and either zoom in on or magnify the page to make sure I catch all of the relevant details.

My friend used a whisper phone when they were in elementary school to practice with reading out loud, and also used this in the math classroom. If they really weren’t sure what something said, they could ask another student or a teacher to read it for them.

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Type problems with an equation editor

Another strategy for adapting math symbols is to type equations and math symbols with an equation editor, which is available in applications like Microsoft Word and Google Docs. These tools incorporate Unicode Math or LaTeX for displaying symbols so they are read correctly, since a dash (-) on a keyboard is recognized as something different than a minus sign (-) inserted with Unicode. With equation editors, the font size of math symbols and equations can be enlarged or magnified further at a higher resolution.

One important caveat is that equation editors are not useful for documents that are designed for nonvisual access with a screen reader, as they may not read information in the correct order. However, this solution does work for low vision users that want to enlarge symbols or equations to be at a larger font size. For teachers looking for another accessible equation editor, the paid Equatio tool from TextHelp is an option that some of my friends have used either as students or as teachers with their own students.

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Listen to equations as they are read out loud

Even though I prefer to read information visually with large print sizes whenever possible, it can be helpful to listen to equations being read out loud, or having the option to hear them in an audio format. For simple equations, a simplified reading display like Microsoft Immersive Reader can enlarge the font size of a math problem and read each component out loud, highlighting each letter or symbol as it is read. Another option is to provide students with links to audio files that have someone reading a math problem out loud, which can be helpful for younger students.

Related links

More strategies for adapting math symbols and math accessibility

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated May 2024.

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