Mathematics Learning: Keeping Deaf Students Engaged

The issue

Mathematics is a subject that some people find difficult. Many adults easily admit “I was never very good at math” which, when stated in the presence of children, does not necessarily provide motivation to learning mathematics.  Given the additional difficulties that deaf students may have in acquiring language, these struggles can compound the learning process in mathematics.  It is misleading to think that mathematics is “just numbers” and that, therefore, deaf students should learn computation manipulations easily.  Mathematics requires language, vocabulary, and experience to fully understand its application to the world.

Keeping deaf students interested and engaged in mathematics is a challenge throughout the school years.  It is important to provide conceptual understanding as well as skill practice at all levels, but knowing how to truly involve students in learning the mathematics can be difficult for parents and teachers alike. In deaf education research and the related literature, there is much more information about teaching and learning language and reading than about teaching and learning mathematics.  So, as teacher and parents, we need to approach mathematics education by applying best practices in both realms of deaf education and mathematics education.

What we know

Reading a mathematical word problem takes a different skill set than reading a fictional story or a novel.  Word problems tend to be more dense with information and often have specific mathematics vocabulary that may be unknown to the reader.  Solving mathematical problems requires effort, focus, and background knowledge of the given situation.

Algorithms are often abstract, and require memorization.  As in best practices for teaching deaf students other subjects, we know that providing information visually (e.g., video, manipulative/tactile, pictorial, text) provides the learner with more substance, which can lead to better understanding.  Deaf students certainly are capable of performing high level, complex mathematics when provided with rich educational experiences.  Memorization has its place in mathematics learning, but purely memorizing a sequence of steps to get an answer does not truly show understanding and does not engage students in a motivating way.  Mathematics can become dry and boring for the learner if it is all about crunching numbers without any meaning.

What we don’t know

There is some, but not much research on the mathematics teaching and learning of deaf students. Most fundamentally, it is not clear if deaf students learn (and do) mathematics in the same ways as hearing students, or if they hit the same cognitive mathematical milestones at the same time (surely there are some similarities).  Most educators would agree that delayed language impacts mathematics learning as it does other domains.  Lack of language input could deny the deaf learner background information about life situations that would be helpful in understanding math concepts (e.g., “your sister gets more because she is bigger”).  Some might even question whether deaf students are held to as high a standard of rigor and critical thinking in mathematics because of language delays or below grade-level reading scores.Communication is a large part of understanding mathematics, but what does that mean for deaf students?  In deaf education, we use a variety of communication methods…is one more effective or efficient than the other in relating mathematical concepts?  Or, perhaps information could be communicated in several ways to accommodate diverse learning styles.


There are many current “best practices” in mathematics education that have been researched.  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics suggests approaches such as “facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse” and “building procedural fluency from conceptual understanding,” just to name two.  Math classrooms today look different than they did years ago; students are often working in small groups where they communicate ideas and problem solve real-world questions.  Hands-on activities are used often, including concrete items (e.g., counting blocks or sticks) to help children learn abstract concepts.  Teachers are encouraged to use similar strategies with deaf students to maximize mathematics understanding.  A firm background in number concepts, along with encouraging critical thinking related to meaningful problems likely will result in the deaf student being more engaged in the learning process.

Parents can create situations at home that help deaf students understand mathematics in everyday living.  Families can discuss topics such as cooking (measurement, temperature), driving (mileage, measurement, speed), money/bills (salary, cost of living, cost of items in the home, tax, tip), and others.  The more that deaf students are exposed to these discussions and experiences as they grow up, the more they can connect them to learning and helping them to be more engaged in mathematics class.

Posted on July 6, 2018 by
Dawn Hoyt Kidd
Texas School for the Deaf
dawn.kidd {at}


Further reading