The Benefits of Teaching Multisensory Maths

By Jasmine

Homeschool Tips, Parents

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What are the benefits of teaching multisensory maths?

When taught in hands-on, multisensory ways, maths become an easy subject to teach. Students grasp ideas much quicker, understand what is being taught and are able to use it in everyday life situations - as well as to achieve better results in maths exams.

It's fairly simple to teach too - by using CRA methodology and a set of specific manipualtives, you can teach basic addition to advanced algebra. And, it's research-proven to work! Students with any predominant learning style can benefit dramatically from this method of teaching, as well as those with kinaesthetic learning styles. 

Used across Australia with thousands of students, teaching multisensory maths is specific for students of all ages and learning abilities - and is perfect for intervention, small groups, tutoring, and those with dyscalculia and dysgraphia. 

What is CRA?

Concrete Representational Abstract (CRA) is a three step instructional approach that has been found to be highly effective in teaching math concepts in a multisensory way.

The first step is called the concrete stage.  It is known as the “doing” stage and involves physically manipulating objects to solve a math problem.  

The second representational (semi-concrete) stage is the next step.  It is known as the “seeing” stage and involves using images to represent objects to solve a math problem.

The final step in this approach is called the abstract stage.  It is known as the “symbolic” stage and involves using only numbers and symbols to solve a math problem.  CRA is a gradual systematic approach.  

Each stage builds on to the previous stage and therefore must be taught in sequence. Sometimes, preschools and kindergartens use 3D objects to teach basic numbers (which is a great start!) but this method isn't soundproof and often isn't continued on into higher schooling levels. What makes multisensory maths work as a method? You need ONE set of concrete manipulatives to teach all the way through to highschool.

What doesn't work... 

Although "multisensory maths" is becoming popular in the maths world, the concepts aren't understood or taught properly. "Multisensory" goes far beyond teaching students with coloured buttons, coloured paddle pop sticks, checkers, dominos, pizza slices or using fingers to count out a number. These are all short term "time-fillers" when teaching maths because they don't address the real issue (most students taught this way constantly struggle with simple concepts like Place Value).

Here are some examples of "hands on" items that are often used to teach maths when a) the students are in preschool or early years or b) when students are struggling with numbers, place value and maths concepts and teacher aren't given anything else to use:

  • coloured chips
  • beans
  • unifix cubes
  • candy (e.g Skittles)
  • popsicle sticks
  • fraction blocks
  • fraction pizzas/cakes

Or, teachers try and show numbers representationally using the following:

  • tally marks
  • dots
  • circles
  • pictures of objects

Why don't these work when teaching maths?

1. They don't work when you progress to larger numbers (or you can invest in an endless supply of popsicle sticks if you have the budget but still....)

2. They keep a student at the "counting phase" which is where they learn to count singular, unit numbers and don't progress to fast-counting (addition)

3. It's not a long term solution - you can't use these objects in high school and advanced maths

4. The most important thing is not learnt properly - student's don't understand place value!

5. Keep reading. There's so many more benefits to teaching multisensory maths using specific manipulatives like the ones shown below...

What DOES work when teaching maths

When using one set of manipulatives throughout their schooling maths curriculum and showing maths in a concrete, step-by-step way, your students will begin to understand maths as a concept that makes sense from small numbers to larger numbers and in all complex formulations. When taught correctly, they will be able to confidently achieve excellent maths results!

The Integer Block Kit is a complete set of manipulatives that is used through each lesson of the Math-U-See program from Primary to Grade 12 maths, building on specific colours and research-proven methods to teach numbers concretely. 

By using these manipulatives, it means you'll be taking the numbers off the page and making them hands-on for your student. It's a much more effective way of teaching and retaining information!

Here are some easy tips to help when teaching your students:

1. Remember that modelling the concept and providing lots of opportunities to practice is extremely important. The Math-U-See online videos and step-by-step instructions provided will show you exactly what to teach and how to teach it best. 

2. Don't rush through the levels. Students need time to make connections and build on what they already know. Give them time to practise what they know in the Student Text practice pages, before moving onto the next level. 

3. Getting your student to teach the material back to you is a key step of showing mastery! This is a key step of how we teach using the 4 Step Approach. 

Here are the research-proven benefits:

Benefits of using concrete, hands-on manipulatives to teach maths:

  • Provides students with a structured way to learn math concepts
  • Students are able to build a better connection when moving through the levels of understanding from concrete to abstract
  • Makes learning accessible to all learners (including those with math learning disabilities)
  • Taught explicitly using a multi-sensory approach
  • Follows Universal Design for Learning guidelines
  • Research has proven that this method is effective
  • Able to use across grade levels, from early elementary through high school
  • Aligned with NCTM standards
  • Helps students learn concepts before learning rules
  • Can be used in small groups or entire class

According to the research cited by Terry Anstrom (n.d.), “students who use concrete materials develop more precise and more comprehensive mental representations, often show more motivation and on-task behavior, understand mathematical ideas, and better apply these ideas to life situations.”

It's specific for students with learning differences

This method of using concrete, hands-on manipulatives has profound benefits and is especially effective for those with:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • ADD
  • Most other learning differences

Have you heard of the VARK method? It's about using all different styles of learning to teach a concept - visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic methods - and proves that students of all learning styles can benefit enormously from hands-on learning (combining both the visual + kinaesthetic learners is a huge percent!)

Here's why it works:

  • Visual: Helps students to think in pictures and create a mental image to retain concepts.
  • Auditory: Helps students to organize words in math problems in a way that makes sense.
  • Kinesthetic: Students learn through hands-on activities.
  • Logical-Mathematical (Other): Students use logic to organize information, classify and categorize, make connections and build relationships.

You can use the same methods to teach any subject

The importance of keeping in mind the CRA principles and using them with your student is that not only they learn and understand the concept better, but it's research proven that this method of teaching helps students retain the information for a much longer time!

There's also more benefits for you and your student:

  • Using CRA methodology provides multiple ways to teach math concepts
  • Multiple means of representation offered through the use of various manipulative items, visual images etc.
  • Allows options for how students learn and express their understanding of a math concept
  • Flexible methods for engaging students (able to incorporate student interests and use real life examples)
  • Accessible to all students regardless of ability level
  • Learning is active, fun and engaging

Want to know how it works?

If you have the right resources and know what you're doing with them, teaching maths becomes easy and effective. Here's a few options below that will assist you to become the best maths teacher ever!

1. You can use the Integer Block manipualtives in any classroom with any maths curriculum. If you can teach maths concepts to your students in a way they understand, you'll move through maths lessons much faster, have better student engagement and get better results. 

2. If you want an entire program that shows you step-by-step how to teach each concept (used by thousands of schools and parents across Australia) then you can check out the entire Primary to Grade 12 multisensory Math-U-See program here.

We also offer Teacher Trainings, so you don't have to do the hard work and research why, what and how to teach maths better (and how to make it work for a whole classroom full of students at all different levels!) Here's all the answers, in one tidy package.

You can check out the upcoming dates below:

Students working together

Multisensory Maths Training for Teachers

If your students are struggling with Place Value and more complex maths, it's probably because the foundations weren't taught properly. Join us and learn how easy teaching maths can be!

We also have Parent Training workshops available if you're teaching your kids at home. You can check out the upcoming Parent workshops here.


The Team at Maths Australia


Anstrom, T. (n.d.). Supporting students in mathematics through the use of manipulatives. Washington, DC: Center for Implementing Technology in Education. Retrieved April 14, 2012. 

Bender, W. (2009). Differentiating math instruction: Strategies that work for K-8 classrooms. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Sousa, D. (2008). How the brain learns mathematics. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

The Access Center: Improving Outcomes for All Students K-8. (n.d.). Concrete-Representational-Abstract instructional approach. Retrieved April 14, 2012.

There are also references to the article from "Making Education Fun"

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