I didn’t realize I had dyslexia until I was in graduate school and my professor read through a journal I was keeping for class and said, “Has anyone ever diagnosed you as dyslexic?” I still didn’t pay all that much attention to it because I was working, going to school, having children, just too busy to care. It wasn’t until a few years ago with my cousin’s diagnosis of dyslexia and my uncle’s declaration as having it that I started to do more research. It turns out it’s a hereditary trait. It also explained a lot on why I could never pass a spelling test in grade school, no matter how hard I studied, why it took until 6th grade before a teacher realized I had the fortitude to be in the upper reading group, and why having lived in 3 different countries I could never learn the language beyond a few simple phrases.
The term Dyslexia refers to a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading and spelling due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. It is a common learning disability that occurs in children with normal vision and intelligence. Although dyslexia is mostly characterized as a reading disorder between 60% and 100% of dyslexics have difficulty with certain aspects of mathematics as well.
For me the difficulty has always been retaining an “image” in my mind. When someone asks that I spell something out loud or do math facts in my head, I can’t get an image of what it should look like. I have to write it down and still, at times with spelling, I can’t determine if I’m correct. Sounding out unknown words is difficult, as well as reciting series of numbers. I see the two as very similar, think of a last name, McAuliffe, and a phone number, 425-862-1254, I get the prefix of both but after that it is just a series of letters and numbers without any connection.
Other things I struggle with is vocabulary and the retrieval of verbal information. I know there is a word to describe what I’m thinking but I can’t quite get it out. Much like sounding out a word, I have pieces of the word but just can’t put it all together to flow in the correct fashion. Correct terms in mathematics are a huge stumbling block for me as the words all seem so similar.
A brain study out of Georgetown medical school in 2014 shows that there is a difference between what regions of the brain are used between children without dyslexia and those with. Usually, people use regions on the right side of the brain to solve math problems that require a step-by-step process, such as subtraction and division; regions on the left side of the brain typically handle more rote, fact-retrieval problems such as addition and multiplication. …in children with dyslexia, the right supramarginal gyrus is heavily involved in both subtraction and addition. (It’s important to note too that dyslexic students in the study performed just as well as non-dyslexic students – they were just using a different brain strategy. (Eide, 2015))
Students with slower processing speeds are often no different from their peers in math proficiency in first and second grade; but as they confront multistep computations in upper elementary school, their scores tumble because they lack the skills necessary to produce organized, efficient output. These students aren’t losing their earlier skill base but the new tasks demand efficient processing in different domains.
Excelling at math, or just even being able to pass the requirements, draws on many different skills and ways of thinking—it calls on conceptual, logical, and spatial reasoning, but it also often requires neatness, exactness, and computational skills. The mathematical problems that students now encounter need organizational skills involving planning and sequencing, as well as skills like handwriting, copying text, note taking, and other outputs requiring accuracy and efficiency. These skills are often difficult for dyslexic students so they need to be taught strategies.
Here are some strategies for working with dyslexic students in math.
1. Learn to organize thoughts: Organizational skills such as note taking and clear handwriting is necessary. Explicitly teaching math terms and symbols helps develop skills needed to succeed in mathematics. Have the students crate a vocabulary book, I personally like the flip books as it keeps things orderly, and having bulletin boards with neatly written vocabulary is helpful. I find color coding to be useful in drawing the eye to the specific words.
2. Teach memory skills and mnemonics: Games like Simon that have players repeating color patterns from memory are great. Take this same game idea and replace colors with numbers and have players recite number patterns. Start with digits 1 – 4 and then add in additional digits.
Mnemonics were very helpful to me when learning my math facts or algorithm patterns. Thinking dance steps when multiply 7 x 8. (5, 6, 7, 8. 7 x 8 is 56) or reciting rhymes (8 x 8 fell on the floor and came up as 64) still help me today. PEMDAS (parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract) and Dirty Monkeys Smell Completely Bad also helped me through math processes. Recently NCTM said they don’t condone the use of the PEMDAS mnemonic but I still prefer this to using a calculator. Mnemonics requires the students to think through the process. Make sure to inform parents on the skills and the mnemonics that are used to help increases students’ consistency.
3. Talk and walk it out: Students who struggle with processing multi-step problems can improve their accuracy by employing several strategies that involve “walking” and “talking” problems through. In interviews with dyslexic adults, all of them successful professionals in fields from science and medicine to law and education, find talking through tasks or mouthing out words while reading is helpful throughout their lives.
Have students model large mathematical equations so they can easily manipulate numbers. Students literally walk through math computations drawn on the floor to gain an understanding of the organizational framework or have them work with playing cards that they shuffle and move around. Students learn to sequentially process the information from these structures by moving their bodies or hands as they describe each step.
4. Teach for mastery before moving on: Just as fluency is an essential skill for proficiency in literacy, fluency is also foundational for proficiency in math (Powell et al., 2011). Students who struggle to quickly and accurately do number combinations are severely handicapped when it comes to grasping later mathematical concepts. Dyslexic students need to over-learn a skill to set it to memory. Use multi-sensory instruction that can be faded out once mastered. Having manipulatives like coins when doing subtraction with regrouping helps students understand the process. Lose Your Cents is a great example of how students can learn and master this concept.
If necessary, break down the complex processing tasks in math into various subskills that can be tested and analyzed. Subskills can be reinforced through game play. MANGO Math has created math games that put mathematics in a way that is understandable with specific subskills that are reinforced until mastery and then used to build a more concrete understanding of number sense. Our MANGO YouTube channel has many examples including this one called Lattice Multiply.
All children benefit from number-rich learning environments and students with poor number concepts can benefit greatly from early emphasis on number sense, symbolic skills, ability to compare and estimate quantities. It is important to not only increase fluency for math facts, but to also provide students with strategies for solving number combinations when they could not retrieve the math fact. The game Cue is a great way to teach strategies to increase fluency.
5. Help establish perseverance: Study by Chinn (1995) suggest that errors made by dyslexics on an untimed test were not significantly different to those made by non-dyslexics with one notable exception, the error of no-attempt. Lack of motivation to answer a question can be caused by repeated failure, mismatch in the student’s learning style, teachers’ and parents’ comments; feeling overwhelmed or confused, fear of embarrassment/failure in front of peers, etc.
Here are some step to help these children:
- Model steps and allow them to talk through the steps
- When stalled get them to ask questions
- Provide sequence or patterns with examples to follow. If the task is familiar they are more likely to stick with it
- Model breaking apart multi-step directions and problems, set those steps to mnemonic cues
- Use visual aids like number lines and manipulatives but make sure to ween them off to establish concrete understanding.
These strategies not only help dyslexic students but all students that might need a little more direction and support in mathematics. In creating MANGO math, I made games that help me make sense of math concepts and in doing so I realized that I was not only helping myself but I created something that helped others that struggle with some of the same issues I had as a child. Enjoy Math!
Mary Curry is a math enthusiast with M.ed degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Seattle University and a B.S. degree in Elementary Education k – 8 from University of South Dakota. She is endorsed in special education k – 12, ELL, and Social Sciences. Ms. Curry has written math curriculum for over 12 years, first with Exploration in Math (now Zeno) before starting MANGO Math Group. Her curriculum is used in all 50 states with over 30,000 students benefiting from it.