How to teach maths to students with Dyslexia
Students with dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning differences often get left behind in many subjects, primarily English and maths. They usually struggle to understand words, letters, symbols and numbers, and there's a good reason for that. Quite simply, their brain works differently from a "normal" student's brain. There is an increased awareness and support that is needed to help these students understand, learn and engage in the world today.
Some of the most creative, astounding people in history have been dyslexic. Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Richard Branson are some of the most well-known dyslexics and have all been highly successful. It is not a limitation or a hinderance - rather, dyslexia can be a wonderful gift when supported through specific learning methods.
There are a few variations on the spectrum of learning differences. In this article, we will discuss two of these learning differences and how they can impact your student, and what you can do about it supporting their learning and education.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding), symbols and numbers. Also called reading disability, dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language.
What are some signs of dyslexia?
There are often signs that you will notice about your child that will identify if they have learning differences. Knowing if your child is struggling is important so you can better support them when and where they need help.
Common signs of dyslexia may include the following:
How do you know if your student has dyslexia?
Children with dyslexia have difficulty using and understanding symbols and words, especially small function words of language which do not have a meaning that can be easily pictured, or which have multiple meanings depending on concepts. They can also have difficulty with understanding concepts of time, sequence and order.
With mathematics, this leads to confusion both in understanding the symbols commonly used in problems and equations, and in making sense of word problems.
For example, if you ask a child, “how many times does 4 go into 12?” — it is possible that the only words the dyslexic child has heard that make sense are four and twelve. The other words:
are all words that potentially cause confusion and may be meaningless to that child.
If the child is asked to read that sentence on his own, he might additionally be confused by the numerals, especially 12, as there is a tendency to transpose numbers. That is, to a dyslexic, 12 may look the same as 21.
In algebra, the same problem might be written as,
4 x x = 12 — with the student asked to solve for the value of x
This is an improvement, as there are not as many words to make sense of – but it is still meaningless if the child does not know the meaning of the symbols x and =.
Additionally, there is the added confusion of the similarity of appearance between the letter x, used to represent the unknown value, and the use of the x sign for multiplication. The problem with possible transposition of numerals in 12 also remains.
What is dyscalculia?
Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and may have problems learning number facts and procedures. The inability occurs at the concrete level but especially at the abstract level.
Dyscalculia is similar to dyslexia in the fact that the student struggles to understand numbers and symbols, what they mean and what to do with them.
Often, the same confusion of numbers such as "21 being 12" is experienced by students with dyscalculia. They find it hard to understand simple addition and subtraction, and most importantly, their understanding of Place Value goes completely out the window.
Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so hesitantly and without confidence" (DfES, 2001). There is a high co-morbidity rate for children with developmental dyscalculia and dyslexia. Between 60% and 100% of dyslexics have difficulty with certain aspects of mathematics (Miles, 1993 & Joffe, 1990).
Why do dyslexic students struggle?
Most dyslexic children have strong visual and spatial reasoning skills, so they tend to understand math concepts that are taught through manipulative or visual strategies better, although the issues with understanding concepts of time and sequence can still be a barrier. But it would be easier for most if the teacher gave them 12 beads and asked them to divide them into 4 equal groups, and then report how many groups they had.
Because the root cause of the problem is the lack of understanding of particular words, symbols or concepts, each child has their own unique set of barriers. Each, over time, will have learned to recognise some words and symbols, or mastered some concepts, but not others — so each will have their own particularised area of difficulty.
How can you help your dyslexic student learn maths?
A tutor, classroom teacher, or parent working with a child on a particular area can help simply by keeping in mind that it is often very simple misunderstandings over words and symbols that are the root of the problem. That is, often the child cannot provide an answer simply because she does not fully understand what is being asked. Other strategies that are useful when working with dyslexic students including using constant praise for your student's efforts, being flexible in your learning approach and practising a great amount of patience when teaching.
There is also a very important tool that supports dyslexia, dyscalculia and students with learning differences to understand maths.
Even though most students will strongly benefit from using hands-on manipulatives, this is especially important for those with learning differences. The sensory connection with numbers through tactile, hands-on tools is something that is severely lacking in most of today's education. Without the tactile understanding of a concept, dyslexic students struggle to understand what is being taught.
Simple instructions for you as the teacher, as well as simplified student workbooks are another important part of teaching your student. Our specialised maths program provides workbooks are black and white and don't have any big shapes, coloured animals or other distracting objects. This is very important when working with a student with dyslexia. They are already so easily distracted that using a minimalist approach, short lessons and being patient with your student is the best approach.
You can also use online video lessons as well as songs, maths games and maths activities to further engage your student. Engaging their auditory and active physical state by listening to maths or playing outside will have a much deeper impact on your student's understanding of maths.
These are all important strategies to support your student to learn maths in the best way possible. By helping them where you can with these specific methods and tools, you are unlocking their understanding and engagement in an important subject. You are enabling your student to not only learn maths in a concrete, hands-on way but to be able to use maths in their future jobs, careers and work opportunities.
Does a multi-sensory approach actually work?
Yes, this specific approach to learning maths actually works! One of our success stories comes from Matthew Davis, who used our specialised maths program and is now working at a metal recycling trading in the mining industry and confidently and successfully uses maths everyday. You can watch his video here.
If you want to read more about dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, you can find out more on the official Australian Dyslexic Association's website here.
Let us know if you suspect your student has learning differences, and where they struggle. We are always here to help and can share our resources on dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning differences with you. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Team at Maths Australia