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Math Heroes: 4 Super Powers and Fun Ways Every Child Can Master Them

Batman protects the good people of Gotham City from the Joker’s crazy schemes. Spider-Man risks his life to deliver justice to the Green Goblin. And you spend every school night valiantly fighting alongside your defeated child trying to overcome the dreaded beast that is Math homework.

And in the midst of tears and hair-pulling and scanning your way through Youtube tutorials you have asked countless times, does it have to be this way? Will my child always feel like this about Math? Where is a superhero when we need one?

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Enter: the Math Super Powers. In this 32-minute interview, you will meet Marilyn Zecher. A pioneer in the fight to help every child conquer math, Mariyln will share 4 battle-tested math super powers. Her weapon of choice? Multisensory Math.

What is Multisensory Math?

Multisensory simply means using as many senses as possible at one time. So what is multisensory math? It is an instructional approach that enables students to experience math using multiple senses at once.

Based on the research and neuroscience, multisensory math stems from Orton-Gillingham reading instruction, which was developed to support students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Doesn’t it make sense that this math instructional approach would work well for students with dyscalculia or other math learning disabilities?

Marilyn says multisensory math requires direct instruction using “all sensory areas, as much as we can, SIMULTANEOUSLY”.

A multisensory instructor will diagnose student deficits and then create individualized lessons based on the needs of the child. These lessons will incorporate manipulatives (think dice, dominoes, or base-ten blocks) to illustrate concepts.

Zecher multisensory math

Next, students will be asked to draw pictures or create representations of the math concepts. Finally, the student will connect these materials and drawings to the numeric representations of the math. This bridge from concrete, tangible objects to numbers and algorithms on a page is called the CRA approach (concrete -> representational -> abstract).

It is not enough, though, just to set some base-ten blocks in front of a student. Manipulatives in and of themselves will not make math more meaningful. The use of objects and pictures, then, must be accompanied by precise instructional language.

Marilyn shared that, “We have to use language that supports mathematics instruction and is retained by the student and used and lived with by the student.” This means getting rid of phrases like “borrow and carry”, which do not explicitly describe the act of composing and decomposing numbers. “Cuz honey, we ain’t given nothing back.”

Want to know the best thing about multisensory math? It isn’t only good for students with learning disabilities. It is truly beneficial for ALL learners!

“If we do this for all students, we help the most students.”

Who is Marilyn Zecher?

Marilyn Zecher is the ultimate super hero to everyone here at Made for Math! We can’t possibly explain all the amazing work she has done in this one little post, but here is a snippet of her story…

Originally, Marilyn was a music teacher. However, when school districts began cutting art classes, Marilyn returned to school to become certified in ELA and was introduced to the Orton-Gillignham approach to reading instruction.

Since she herself is dyslexic, Marilyn appreciated deeply this ground-breaking way of teaching children to read and write. She became a classroom teacher and certified language therapist.

Eventually, Marilyn began to envision a similar approach for teaching mathematics. “I started looking at it from Algebra down, rather than…from the bottom (lower levels of math) up,” she says. By doing this, Marilyn was able to see how educators could introduce concepts and models at the most basic levels that could then carry all the way through high school math and beyond. This led her to develop what she calls the “4 super powers of math”.

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What are the superpowers of math?

Marilyn has identified 4 math super powers students can master early, which will enable them to succeed as they move into higher levels of math.

Super Power #1: Subitizing (or Numeracy) This power has to do with a student’s ability to recognize quantities and the different ways they can be composed. Imagine rolling 5 dice (or go ahead and grab some and try it if you’d like!). What did you roll? Your ability to recognize the numbers represented on each die WITHOUT counting each individual dot is subitizing. Now, looking at your 5 dice, do you see any combinations that add up to 6? Maybe you rolled two 3’s? Or maybe you have three 2’s? Or maybe one die landed on 6? This is the other part of subitizing – recognizing the various ways to compose (or build) a number.

Zecher multisensory math

Think about the problem 28 +7. To solve this problem, a child with subitizing superpowers will hold the quantity 28 in his mind and then ask, “what part of 7 will get me to 30?” After deciding he needs 2 from the 7 to get to 30, he will recognize that he can now add the other part of the 7 (5) to 30 and get a final answer of 35.

Super Power #2: Place Value or Expanded Form Place value is the organization of quantities. A student with Place Value Power will be able to build larger numbers by considering what each number is made of. For example, this superhero knows that the number 11 is made up of 1 ten and 1 one. Its name is eleven, but its value is 1 ten + 1 one.

Super Power #3: Distributive Property If I had to bet, I would say this third super power is the one you have seen your student(s) get hung up on the most. The ability to act on what a number is made of, to break it apart, manipulate it, and put it back together. This is where students who struggle with working memory or language deficits will surely flounder.

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But have no fear – multisensory math is here! If a student has Place Value power and they can build the number 123, for example (1 hundred, 2 tens, 3 ones), then the next step would be to visualize 2 of that number (2 hundreds, 4 tens, 6 ones.) It is the ability to reason multiplicatively. This is the superpower of the Distributive Property.

Super Power #4: The Magic One The final superpower is 1. That’s right. You probably never heard your Math teachers talk about the magic of the number one. But it’s real and once your child understands it, they will be unstoppable!

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You see, when students begin learning fraction concepts in 3rd or 4th grade, many will struggle because they haven’t learned the different faces of 1.

One is magic because it can have so many different names. One can be 1, 1.0, 2/2, 300/300, x/x, or the square root of 16 over the square root of 16. Understanding one and the ways in which it can be renamed to simplify math problems is truly a game-changing super power!

Zecher multisensory math

Here at Made for Math, we use games to instill these 4 super powers in our students so they can approach new and challenging math concepts with confidence and flexibility.

What are some ways that parents can help their child who is struggling in Math?

If you are a parent of a child who has an IEP (individualized education plan) or is in the process of obtaining one, it is crucial that you get involved in selecting the accommodations that are included in this plan. Marilyn explains that there are two distinct types of classroom accommodations: output accommodations and input accommodations.

You have probably seen the output variety. These are the accommodations that allow the teacher to see what the student has learned. These are things like the use of a calculator or a separate testing space. Most IEPs are chock full of output accommodations.

Input accommodations are things that “help the math and the instruction get INTO the child.” Marilyn insists that these are the most impactful type of accommodations. Things like word banks, nearpoint references, and explicit instruction.

Multisensory math = input accommodations!

Marilyn’s favorite input accommodation? Restricted number facts. This means that students are using a specific set of math facts throughout a lesson, so that they do not exhaust their working memory by trying to retrieve too many facts.

Need some accommodation inspiration? Check out our generator.

We play a lot of games at Made for Math! This is because games provide a low-stress, fun environment for students to practice math concepts. Think of it as super hero training!

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Marilyn suggests that parents who want to help their students develop the 4 super powers should spend time playing math games. Here are a few of her suggestions:

Make a ten: For this simple game, all you need are 5 dice. Take turns rolling the dice and “make” as many tens as you can. For example, if I roll a 5, a 3, a 2, a 6, and a 4, I can “make a ten” by combining the 5 with the 2 and the 3. I can make another ten by adding the 6 and the 4. This game is so versatile because you can also “make a 5” or a 6, and so on.

Chips: For this game, you will need poker chips or something to cover up the numbers 1-12 with. (You can even write them on a dry-erase board and simply erase the numbers rather than covering them up.) Roll 2 dice and use the numbers to solve as many equations as possible. You can add the 2 numbers, subtract, multiply, divide, you can use a combination of positive and negative numbers, you can use one number as an exponent… the possibilities are only limited to what the player understands about numbers. Cover (or erase) each solution to the problems you solved. The objective is to cover/erase more numbers than your opponent.

Are you ready to learn more about multisensory math?

Connect with Marilyn on Facebook at Marilyn’s Multisensory Math or her website, multisensorymath.online.

You can also watch for local IDA (international dyslexia association) Conferences.

And of course we’d love for you to reach out to us at Made for Math!

Marilyn, you truly are a superhero! And every child deserves to be exposed to your 4 super powers and to multisensory math!

multisensory math

Check out the other videos in this series! And get out those cards and dice – start playing math games today!

🎲 Would Multisensory Work for Your Child? 🎲

Our team created a quiz to help you decide if multisensory math would help your child! In 5-minutes or less, you’ll have clarity if this approach would work for your child.

MFM Authors

Cassie Gibson

Cassie Gibson

Multisensory Math Specialist

Cassie is a book-loving, knowledge-hungry, fun-seeking teacher who just wants to share the joys of learning with each and every student she has the privilege to meet! While teaching students here at MFM, she also writes great content to help parents just like you.