Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I'm putting my post on RDI on hold a little bit longer, because God answered a huge prayer today. Ryne had a breakthrough with math.

For the most part, Ryne does really well academically. He had no problem learning to read and even does pretty well with comprehension (an area in which many kids on the spectrum really struggle). When we first started homeschooling, I worried whether he'd understand grammar, but with the help of First Language Lessons he's doing great. His handwriting has improved dramatically since he started learning cursive. In fact, for the last year he's been obsessive-compulsive with his love for cursive handwriting. But math has been another story.

Ryne has an incredible ability to memorize -- songs, poems, Bible verses, books, commercials on TV, you name it. Except for math facts. Before he even started kindergarten he had started memorizing some basic facts with ease. But in first grade he started struggling. It was half-way through first grade when we started homeschooling, and I was shocked to learn he hardly knew any of his addition facts. I hadn't realized how much he was struggling.

When we lived in Chicago, Anna went to kindergarten and 1st grade at Christian Liberty Academy, home of the big homeschool supplier Christian Liberty Press. It was a wonderful school in so many ways, so as we jumped into homeschooling I was attracted to many of CLP's offerings, including their math curriculum (It's called Liberty Mathematics and is only for grades K - 1). They had an unusual method for teaching addition and subtraction facts, but it worked wonderfully for Anna. Naturally, I figured it would work well for Ryne too. Long story short, it did not work. We also tried Horizons, which a family at our church has used with great success, but Ryne just seemed lost. So I just started printing worksheets off the Internet and did lots of flashcards with him until I figured out what to do next. We made a tiny bit of progress, but more often than not our math sessions would end in frustration.

And then we tried Math U See. MUS is different than many math curriculum in that it follows a mastery approach rather than a spiral approach, meaning you stick with something until you know it rather than touching on one thing and then moving on to another and another until you have "spiraled" back around to build on what you previously learned. When Anna was in third grade at another Christian school, they used a spiral-type math curriculum. I spent some time tutoring a few of her classmates in math for the first semester and quickly realized that a spiral approach just does not work for some kids. Anna had no problem with it, although she often complained about having to learn something new every day. But there were a few boys who really struggled. When I would arrive for tutoring, the teacher would tell me, "[Name] is really struggling with long division, so work on that with him." We'd work through some problems together, but it turned out long division was never really the problem. Each of the boys understood the steps perfectly. But they didn't know how to multiply or subtract, even simple problems like 5 - 3. When I explained this to the teacher, she made a comment about that being the downside to a spiral approach (the first time I had heard the term). So this is the reason why I agonized over Ryne learning his facts, and why MUS was so appealing once I discovered it.

I was also thrilled to learn from other homeschoolers on the MUS yahoo group, that many kids on the autism spectrum were doing very well with MUS. In fact, Steve Demme started MUS in part because of his experience in teaching his own special needs child. We started Ryne in the first level, Alpha, which covers single digit addition and subtraction (there is a Primer to prepare younger kids for Alpha, but it doesn't stress mastery). Ryne got off to a great start. He loved playing with the blocks and quickly memorized all their values. He did really well learning his addition facts.

But subtraction has been difficult. It just hasn't been clicking. Some days have been better than others, but often he just stares at the page and zones out. We have slowly continued on even though I know he hasn't completely mastered the previous lessons (generally not recommended). Grace is almost done with the Primer and will be starting Alpha soon (even though she is 3 years younger than Ryne), so I have even considered having Ryne completely redo Alpha and follow along with Grace. I don't think it would bother him like it would for other kids -- he has no idea how far behind he is in math -- and because of the support from many on the MUS yahoo group who've been through this themselves, I'm not overly concerned either (not that it feels good to know your child is behind).

Today we started a new lesson. I was feeling very guilty about moving on, but did anyway. The lesson was on subtracting 5 from a number. MUS teaches a "adding up" approach to subtraction. For example, for the problem 2 - 1, you simply ask, "What plus one equals two?" Another example is when subtracting 9 from a number, Mr. Demme will say you are really adding by 1. The first step is to make 10 (he calls it a "hidden 10") and then continue adding up to the number in the units place. In 11 -9, you know that you need a 1 to make 10, so you then add the 1 to the 1 in the units place of the number 11, giving you 2. For those of you thinking, "What kind of craziness is that?!" it really makes so much more sense when using the blocks to demonstrate. It helps you to see the "why" of math, rather than just memorizing 11 - 9 = 2. But if my explanation is clear as mud, you're probably in the same boat that Ryne has been in for the last few months. Today in the DVD Mr. Demme explained how to do this process when subtracting by 5's. It took him just a few minutes to explain it because by now the child should have figured it out by learning how to subtract 9's, 8's, 7's and 6's.

For whatever reason, 5 was the magic number. Ryne completely understood the process and banged out two pages of problems in minutes! He was so excited about how it made sense that he wrote out all the steps next to the problems, even though he had already figured out the answer. Here are a few of the problems he did to show the adding up process.

The really cool part is that the second page included a few problems from previous lessons, and he started to understand that this is what he was supposed to be doing all along.

So are the math woes over? Not likely. Obviously, the goal is for him to be able to do this without having to think through the process. I'm still planning on supplementing with a lot of math games and taking things slow until this is cemented, plus I'm looking forward to an upcoming RDI webinar on teaching mathematics in a RDI-friendly manner. But this was an encouraging day.


Just a little more than a week later, Ryne has transferred what he learned with the "minus fives" to his other subtraction facts. He took the test for the final lesson of the book in less than five minutes, with the only mistake being he forgot to do one of the problems (he frequently goes out of order, because he likes to do the word problems first). But even more exciting is that he didn't even have to write all his little "helps" next to the problems! So it's starting to look like we will be able to move on to Beta soon, something he's been eager to do since he first saw the book months ago.

1 comment:

  1. hi- i just found you via the mus users group as I was searching on how to do subtraction practice. we just purchased beta but never cemented subtraction as we started w/ Righstart and they don't do subtraction until 3rd grade. we do RDI as well- but i guess you'd call it guided participation at the moment because we are not currently using a consultant. can you explain a bit further the strategy you used to put the addition into the subtraction to come up w/ the answers? i am not quite grasping it. i hesitate to buy all of alpha when we have most of our stuff down - especially conceptually- and just need to cement subtraction facts. my direct email is lapain.amy@sbcglobal.net