Dyslexia affects a person’s ability to read, write and spell, but how does it impact a student’s ability to learn math?
The same characteristics causing students with dyslexia to struggle while learning to read, often carry over to math. Most dyslexic students experience weaknesses in at least one area of math at some point in their education.
Just as learning about letters and their sounds is difficult for students with dyslexia, learning basic math functions is challenging. Some students reverse their numbers when writing problems and struggle to understand basic math symbols. Directionality is difficult because math problems can be solved right to left, top to bottom, or left to right depending on the type of problem, and our kids learn to read from left to right. Dyslexic students also struggle with memorizing multiplication tables and telling time on a circular clock.
Dyslexic students have working memory deficits. Working memory is the brain’s ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods of time. Students may have difficulty completing problems involving more than one step. For example, word problems require a student to read the information, come up with the math problem, retrieve the basic math facts needed, and perform calculations to find the answer. With subtraction of larger numbers, multiple steps are required for borrowing before performing the actual subtraction of the appropriate columns. Students will encounter countless types of multi-step problems, requiring proper sequencing.
The language of math can be another demanding area for students with dyslexia. Math vocabulary is large and varied. Words like altogether, sum, add, increase, total, and plus require a student to understand that the terms are associated with the concept of addition. These words for the most basic operation can confuse a student because they are used interchangeably. As the level of math instruction increases, new terms are introduced like multiply, fraction, denominator, and quotient. Comprehension of word problems can be difficult. Students have to work hard to decode the math terms because these words are above reading level, or have irregular spellings that cannot be sounded out. Word problems can also lack context and have complex grammar.
How do we support these students?
Students who struggle in math can be supported with differentiated instruction. This can include explicit teaching of math terms and the synonyms for those terms. The use of visuals, such as tables and graphs can be used to for reference when learning new symbols or vocabulary.. Students should also be offered multi-sensory (hands-on) methods using concrete objects. Instructional tools such as calculators and other manipulative should be available and students should be trained to use them. Tasks should be read aloud and students should be allowed to talk through word problems. Students should be taught at their own pace so that they can achieve mastery of each skill before going on to the next. Using real world examples will benefit students and allow them to understand math’s relevance to daily life.
What about dyscalculia?
Dyslexic students can struggle with math without meeting the criteria for the math disability known as dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is characterized by underachievement in math despite having strong abilities in speaking, reading and writing. Individuals with dyslexia and dyscalculia share similar types of math errors and benefit from some of the same types of specialized math instruction.
Written by: Elizabeth Hipwell, M.Ed.
Certified Barton Reading & Spelling Tutor