How to Use the Senses in Teaching Math

Today’s article is from Beth McKeon, founder and principal of Bright Brain Studio. 

Fingers of the left hand.
Image via Wikipedia

Does your child know all of her addition and subtraction facts?

Recent research by Dr. David Geary, of the University of Missouri, concludes that early numeracy and math reasoning skills are critical for math success.


Math knowledge is cumulative.

Children need a strong foundation in beginning math skills, like counting and basic addition and subtraction, in order to succeed with higher level math operations.

You probably already know this, but it’s easy to feel pressure to move your child on to the next level in math even when these basic foundational skills are stabilized. It’s easy to assume she’ll just “get it” with enough exposure.

Except that isn’t true.

Children that don’t pick up basic math skills with a decent amount of exposure and practice likely need a different kind of math stimulation.

Take basic addition and subtraction. Learning facts like 3+4=7 requires both a strong understanding of the concept of addition as well as a strong picture for the fact itself. In many ways, math facts are like sight words. Even when we understand the meaning of 3+4=7, we still need automatic fluency with recognizing and remembering it.

If you treat basic facts like sight words, it’s possible to help your child develop a strong mental picture for the fact – just like you can close your eyes and picture the letters in the word ‘teach.” (There are five symbols – letters or numbers/signs – in each!)

You can develop imagery for basic facts using sensory processing by using a “see, say, feel” multi-sensory approach.

  1. After looking at a fact flash card, have your child write the fact horizontally in the air with her dominant pointer finger. Encourage her to really watch her finger and focus on picturing the equation as she writes it
  2. As she writes the numbers and signs, have her say what she is writing out loud. “Three plus four equals seven.” This should happen simultaneously as she writes.
  3. After she writes the equation, ask imagery questions like: “What number do you see in the middle?” or “What sign do you picture after the three?”

This simple process stimulates your child’s sensory processing in three fundamental ways all at the same time.

  • It stimulates her visual processing as she focuses on creating a mental image for the fact.
  • It stimulates her auditory processing as she says and hears the equation out loud.
  • It stimulates her kinesthetic processing as she literally feels her finger drawing the equation and develops muscle memory for writing it.

Using a multi-sensory approach to teaching basic math facts benefits all math students.

For children who really need to strengthen their visual, auditory, or kinesthetic processing for learning, this technique fills a need that additional worksheets, timed tests, and more flash cards games just can’t. For kids who don’t necessarily need the multi-sensory stimulation, it serves to accelerate learning. They are more engaged in each problem.

Now if only they made scratch-and-sniff flash cards – that would probably really get their attention!

How did it work for you? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Beth McKeon, of Bright Brain Studio, is a brain-based educator on a mission to demonstrate that every child has the capacity to learn. She has spent the past ten years customizing instruction for individual students and teaching teachers and parents how to engage the whole brain in the learning process. Her workshops and coaching provide practical techniques parents can use to reduce the frustration and resistance around homework assignments.

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