October 21, 2020

Dyslexia, Math and Me

By Mary Curry |

Because I am dyslexic and October is dyslexia awareness month, I would like to bring a little awareness to this learning style.   

I did not realize I was dyslexic until I was working on my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a minor in special education when a professor recognized it. I thought, ”that explains a lot.”  In elementary school I failed every spelling test given and was placed in the lower reading groups until a 6th grade teacher realized I had potential and moved me up with the comment, “I think if you work hard enough you can stay up here.” I was working hard!  And people with dyslexia do work hard and are at or above intelligence. They just have difficulties processing information and need educational strategies to help them succeed.  

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, and it is inherited. Although dyslexia is mostly characterized as a reading disorder, between 60% to 80% of dyslexics have difficulty with mathematics as well. 

For me, the difficulty is in retaining an “image” in my mind. When someone says how do you spell some word or do some math fact, I cannot get an image of what it should look like. I need to see it written and even then, I struggle with if I’m “seeing” it right. There are certain common aspect that I can recognize, like with the name McAuliffe or the phone number, 425-862-1254, I recognize the prefix/area code, as they are common numbers - letter patterns, but after that it is just a series of letters and numbers without any connection. Math vocabulary can be a particular struggle as so many of the words sound and look the same. Example; numerator - denominator, equivalent-equation, multiple – multiply.   

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 requires neatness, exactness, and computational skills. The mathematical problems that students encounter need organizational skills involving planning and sequencing, as well as skills like handwriting, text copying, note taking, and other outputs requiring accuracy and efficiency. These skills are often difficult for dyslexic students, so they need to be taught strategies. 

antoine-dautry-_zsL306fDck-unsplash.jpgHere are some strategies for working with dyslexic students in math.

1. Visual attention: For me, I see things best having a blue background with white lettering. Studies have shown that dyslexic students recognize words and numbers best on a green or blue background. Have your students try out which color works best for them. Allow them to use a ruler or a bookmark to draw the eye to a specific line or equation. Provide them with worksheets that have the problems spread out. It is hard to recognize an individual number if the page is full of them. Organize directions in a step by step format, not grouped in a paragraph that includes a lot of unnecessary words. 

2. Learn to organize thoughts: Have students create a vocabulary book. For students that struggle with penmanship allow them to type it out and create a flip book. Something they can refer to when trying to solve a problem. I find color coding to be useful in drawing the eye to the specific words within a certain subset. The teacher might want to help color code so there is consistency. Example: All subtraction words in red or on red paper, all addition words in green, all division words in purple, all multiplication words in blue.

3. Teach memory skills and mnemonics: Games like Simon by Hasbro 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 helpful to me when learning my math facts or algorithm patterns. It helped to think of dance steps when multiplying 7 x 8.  (5, 6, 7, 8.  7 x 8 is 56) or recite rhymes (8 x 8 fell on the floor and came up as 64) and it still helps me today.   PEMDAS (parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract) for order of operations and Dirty Monkeys Smell Completely Bad (divide, multiply, subtract, compare, bring down) for long division, are also helpful. Make sure to inform parents of the skills and mnemonics that are used, so the students have consistency. 

4. 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, who are successful professionals in fields from science and medicine to law and education, they reported that talking through tasks or mouthing out words while reading has been helpful throughout their lives. 

Have students model large mathematical equations, so they can easily manipulate numbers. They can 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. This will help them learn to sequentially process, by moving their bodies or hands as they describe each step.

5. 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. Students who struggle to do number combinations quickly and accurately 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. Check out a blog I wrote on finger use

All children benefit from number-rich learning environments. Students with poor number concepts can benefit greatly from early emphasis on number sense, symbolic skills, ability to compare, and estimating quantities. Having manipulatives on hand for students to use is a must.  Many students come from homes that have minimal to no mathematical manipulatives. Providing them with a math box of supplies may be necessary.    

6. Help establish perseverance:  A study by Chinn (1995) suggests 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. 

joshua-hoehne-AZrBFoXP_3I-unsplash.jpgHere are some step to help these children:

a.  Model math steps and allow them to talk through the steps with you.

b.  When stalled get them to ask questions.  If they aren’t asking questions, approach them and ask them open ended questions.

c.  Provide sequence or patterns with examples to follow. If the task is familiar, they are more likely to stick with it.

d.  Model breaking apart multi-step directions and problems, set those steps to mnemonic cues.

e.  Use visual aids like number lines, manipulatives, and math journals but make sure to wean 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 helped me make sense of math concepts. It then became clear to see that my creation was something that could help others who struggle with some of the same issues, I had as a child. 

Enjoy math! 

Mary Curry is the President and Math Enthusiast of MANGO Math. Contact MANGO Math if you would like sample lessons or a curriculum guide to their math kits. They are here to help youth succeed in math.

This blog post has been provided by Mango Math.