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Talking Calculators

During initial instruction in arithmetic operations, the braillewriter and abacus should be the major tools used in calculations. The talking calculator should only be used as a reinforcer for skills learned with the braillewriter and abacus until a student masters the fundamental concepts involved in computation. As the student becomes more proficient with the braillewriter and abacus, and demonstrates understanding of basic mathematics concepts, progressively less emphasis should be placed on the braillewriter and more emphasis should be placed on the use of the talking calculator.

Eventually, the calculator is likely to become the student’s major tool for performing calculations. This is especially recommended in the advanced study of mathematics, for example, algebra, where the emphasis is upon learning content far advanced from the simple performance of arithmetic calculations. Steps should be taken to give the student the most efficient tool to use so he or she is not expending inordinate amounts of time in the performance of arithmetic calculations, but rather devoting study time to mastering the subject matter content of a course.

While the calculator is the most efficient method for a blind student to perform arithmetic calculations, it has two major disadvantages. First of all, reliance on the talking calculator does not afford the student the advantage of practice in the underlying steps needed to perform the calculation. One can use a calculator without actually understanding the underlying mathematical principles. Secondly, heavy reliance upon use of the calculator results in the loss of instant recall of the basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. If a calculator is used too early, while the youngster is learning the basic facts, he or she will not have immediate recall of mathematics facts in his or her repertoire of skills.

On the other hand, the calculator enables students to solve problems which are challenging and interesting. Since intellectual development is often at a higher level than that of arithmetic skill (Baggett, 1995), enriching mathematics lessons to include some problems which are at the student’s level of thinking while beyond his or her arithmetic skill level will encourage curiosity and persistence in mathematics. This can be achieved with the use of calculators. Breaking Away from the Mathematics Book (Baggett, 1995) is an excellent resource for ideas about teaching the functions of a calculator, as well as calculator based games and activities.

Talking calculators may be used in educational settings in a variety of ways, including:

For students with additional motor disabilities which impede the use of the abacus, or with cognitive disabilities which hinder comprehension of mathematical concepts or rote learning

Although a variety of calculators with distinct characteristics are available to aid in a number of unique tasks, the following characteristics are essential:

There are several additional specific questions to consider when selecting the most appropriate calculator for an individual student. These include:

Teaching strategies

Electronic notetakers

There are several electronic notetakers, which combine speech synthesis and braille, available. These devices can be used by blind students of any age, as tools for performing mathematics calculations. Each contains a calculator function. We recommend the use of those which have a braille display in order that the braille-reading student has the option of being able to read calculation results in braille. This is particularly advantageous when the factors involved in the calculation or the results contain many digits. Some of the notetakers have models which do not contain braille displays. We do not recommend their use for braille-reading students who use the calculator function.

The calculator function can be used to perform a variety of different mathematical operations. Using these devices, whole numbers and decimals can be added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided; square root and percentages can also be calculated; and the precision can be easily set. Strings of calculations can be performed at one time. The results can be stored in several different memory locations, and can be retrieved later for inclusion in other strings of calculations.

The calculator function also includes a scientific calculator in which trigonometric and logarithmic calculations can be performed. In addition, it contains translation tables in which values in the English system and metric system can be converted to the other system (e.g., kilometers to miles and miles to kilometers).

Activities for teaching calculator skills


Baggett, P., & Ehrenfeucht, A. (1995). Breaking away from the mathematics book: creative projects for grades K-6. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Co., Inc.