Virtual Manipulatives: Cool Math Tools to Support Students With Disabilities

Instructional Strategies: 

The Achievement Gap Continues

In our blog post, we discussed the growing number of virtual math tools to support students with disabilities (SWD) in their efforts to close the achievement gap. Unfortunately, according to the latest results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), SWDs continue to lag behind their peers in math achievement. Often referred to as the “National Report Card”, the recent NAEP results confirm that this gap continues with the math scores for SWD in the fourth and eighth grade who earned an average of 187 points and 247 points out of 500, respectively—well below their peers. 

In an effort to bridge this achievement gap, teachers are looking to technology for possible strategies to engage students with disabilities in their math studies. One such promising strategy is discussed in a recent study, “Virtual Manipulatives: Tools for Teaching Mathematics to Students With Learning Disabilities,” which provides practical guidance for teachers to enhance their math curriculum with virtual tools. 

What are Virtual Math Manipulatives?

Virtual manipulatives are tools that offer students and teachers the opportunity to explore math concepts and operations with an interactive, visual model of an object that can be modified to learning. Many of these online tools feature built-in scaffolds to learn and strengthen the understanding of math concepts, adjustable skill levels to reduce cognitive overload, and opportunities for skill practice and enhancement. These tools are easily accessible on laptops and mobile devices and can be integrated into any math curriculum.

What Can We Learn from the Research?

In a recent study, Shin explores the different ways that these free virtual tools can be used in whole- class and small-group instruction. For example, tools such as Illuminations are helpful when teaching algebraic concepts in that they provide the learner with different visual models, including pattern blocks, number lines, vertical bases, and dots that align with different math concepts (e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication, and word problems). Further, students can be encouraged to use their own mobile devises (iPads, iPhones) to explore concepts using visual models that allow them to compare the size of sized circles or lengthen fraction bars with tools that can be found in the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

These virtual manipulative tools can also be used to track student progress in the acquisition of math concepts and skills through quizzes and games. Teachers and students can assess their understanding through hints and prompts embedded in the virtual applications. For example, teachers can gauge their students’ ability to graph equations, or multiply or divide fractions using these virtual manipulatives. Further, using Fun Fraction students can solve word problems and review lessons by watching videos in the application. Of equal importance, is that virtual manipulatives enable students to have agency in the learning process by modifying the learning process and practice at their own pace.

Challenges and Solutions

It is worth noting that Shin identifies four key challenges and solutions to ensure that teachers are able to maximize the use virtual manipulatives to strengthen math instruction and engagement for SWD. These challenges include the need to:

  • Offer training to support teachers. Teachers need ongoing face-to-face and online training to ensure that they feel comfortable using these tools. Make use of video tutorials which provide easy-to-follow directions and support for the use of virtual manipulatives.
  • Ensure students understand the connection between the visual models and math concepts. Students should be encouraged to verbalize their math thinking process and explain their understanding of math concepts. Ongoing assessments are critical to ensure that students understand these concepts and can use them to solve problems.
  • Select tools that align with student needs. Teachers need support to wade through the vast number of tools those that are of high quality to integrate in the math curriculum. Consideration of a “working group” to sift and sort through online tools that would be appropriate for SWDs.
  • Offer intensive math instruction. SWDs benefit from “intensive, strategic, and explicit instruction” that offers the scaffolding needed to learn the necessary underlying math concepts. The use of virtual manipulatives can be used by both teachers and students, if well deployed, to develop and expand skills and confidence to excel in math.

Take the Next Step

Continue learning how to effectively incorporate virtual manipulatives in your math instruction by exploring these PowerUp resources:


Shin, M., Bryant, D. P., Bryant, B. R., McKenna, J. W., Hou, F., & Ok, M. W. (2017). Virtual Manipulatives: Tools for Teaching Mathematics to Students With Learning Disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(3), 148–153. Retrieved from:

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