A Look at Hard Math: No Easy Solution

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Just imagine how a young child feels when she has read every book in the Harry Potter series; yet cannot grasp the fact that if two times three is six then six divided by three is two. Ponder for a moment, the fact that this same child can define words like discombobulate, loquacious, and propensity, but still counts on her fingers to find the sum of five plus four. This is Brianna's reality. Brianna is a ten-year-old fifth-grader whom I am tutoring in math. Obviously, her inability to complete simple math problems negatively affects her confidence, thereby creating even more problems she has to conquer. Math is a difficult subject for many children. Some have comprehension problems in all subjects relative to their particular grade level. Then, there are some children that perform outstandingly well in all other areas except math, like Brianna. My literature review will attempt to explain the issues of the latter group of students' experiences as they struggle to learn the basic concepts of mathematics as well as effective strategies to overcome those issues by answering the following questions:

How effective is one-on-one tutoring for students with math comprehension issues?

What effect does repetitive reinforcement have on progressive mathematical processes?

What will be the length of time before real improvements are evident on standardized exams?

By carefully defining the root cause of some students' inability to perform mathematics at the most basic level and then implementing the appropriate remedial and reinforcement tools, many may be able to overcome or lessen the severity of their disabilities (Horowitz, 2008).

Literature Review

Mathematical learning disability is called dyscalculia; however, there is no one test or standard collectively used to identify it as such (Wadlington & Wadlington, 2008). Obviously, just because someone struggles with math, does not imply a math learning disability. Many students have difficulties because they refuse to read the textbook or do the homework assignments. Some are just plain lazy and refuse to put forth the effort to learn new material. Still others may have environmental or medical conditions that prevent them from succeeding in not only math but other subjects as well, such as children with attention deficient disorders. In addition, some just need to review prerequisites before moving forward to more advanced material (Horowitz, 2007; Schwartz, 2006).

Conversely, if a child does suffer from dyscalculia, certain deficits will present themselves such as lack of understanding of fundamental processes of addition and subtraction as well as harder concepts involving multiplication, division, and word problems (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2007). Because these students do not grasp the basics, early intervention is crucial so they receive the most appropriate remedial and reinforcement help.

Additionally, students with math disabilities will benefit greatly from individual tutoring. Not only will the children receive the extra help needed, their confidence will receive a boost as well. Tutoring allows the student to ask questions they would not ask in class because they did not want to appear as dumb or stupid to others (Wadlington & Wadlington, 2008).

Furthermore, just as it is important to go over fundamentals repeatedly in any activity until performed automatically, it is important to develop mastery in math through repeated practice. Students with math disability do not learn math the same as other students, therefore the additional work required must be something they look forward to doing and not seen as punishment (Wagaman, 2008).

Math anxiety also has a negative effect on performance and not only students with dyscalculia experience it. In fact, the Wadlingtons (2008) stated as much in their article:

Although math anxiety is not a learning disability, it interferes with an individual's ability to lean mathematics and perform on test. A cycle develops in which failure in mathematics leads to anxiety, which leads to more failure, which leads to more anxiety.

Ineffective teaching methods will only increase math anxiety; therefore, it is imperative that inexperienced teachers are well trained in instructing students with math disabilities. Teachers have the unenviable task of finding the strong points and limitations of their students, which is vital in getting help with issues in math. The National Center for Learning Disabilities suggested repetitive, specific practice through tutoring as well (2007).

Moreover, teachers should test the students regularly not only to measure progress but also to determine the next area of instruction. By doing this, areas of deficiency are quickly identified allowing the teachers to develop a lesson plan for that particular deficit (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2007). When dealing with learning disabilities in general, the grade is not as important as the progress. As the learners become more confident in their math abilities, the grades will reflect this (Wagaman, 2008).


The information in the literature review section is very similar to my observations while tutoring. I have no knowledge of my pupil diagnosed with a disability in math. However, nearly seventy-five percent of our tutoring sessions consist of very basic, third-grade material. The other twenty-five percent is homework. The material is usually second and third grade level. Therefore, we cover the most basic before we can move on to the assigned homework. Then I have to explain it step-by-step to Brianna. I have to tell her constantly to do it step-by-step so she does not become confused and frustrated with the whole process. Then at the next session, I have to review what we covered at our last meeting. Case in point, place value was one of the first concepts we worked on. Nearly every day for almost a month, we had to go over place value for Brianna to understand it enough to complete her homework successfully. Reviewing the basics and repetition are the primary reasons Brianna finally understands place value at fifth-grade level. As Schwartz stated, getting her to believe she could actually do the required material was indeed a challenge for me (2006).

To help increase her self-confidence, Brianna took over the role as tutor. She explained to me how to solve each problem in a systematic manner. By switching roles, Brianna was confident in her ability to explain simple mathematical processes to someone else. She exhibits such a positive attitude when she was able to tell me how to solve a problem. For example, when we were reviewing the properties of addition and multiplication, she was so happy to tell me the correct responses to the questions I missed. As I noticed her positive behavior, I continued to be the pupil. Brianna was outstanding in her role as a tutor and her recall was much better when she completed an assessment online covering the properties of addition and multiplication.


I know it requires a lot of patience when tutoring someone who has learning issues. Most students with learning problems are not going to show immediate grade-appropriate improvement because of the level of remediation required. Therefore, patience is required with the student and with the one tutoring. Compassion is also required to be successful in this type of service learning. I really love working with children in any capacity so I would definitely recommend it to others. However, be prepared for very slow progress and some frustration because there is no one strategy that works for every student. Simply put, everyone learns differently and the tutor must allow for this when assisting students like Brianna.