Dyslexic difficulties are most likely to cause the learner problems in maths in the following ways:

Short-term and working memory

Difficulties with short-term and working memory will affect the efficient learning of number bonds, multiplication tables, mental calculation, etc. However, dyslexic learners can draw on their ability to see patterns and the big picture to compensate.

Language decoding and comprehension

Poor decoding and comprehension skills may make it difficult for a dyslexic learner to understand written verbal problems in maths and to master the technical language of the subject.

Sequencing

With the advent of the word processor, sequencing in literacy is less problematic for dyslexics than it once was; essays can be reordered and sections changed, both during and after writing. In maths there is no choice as to where to begin to solve a question. It cannot be reordered during or after the solution has been reached. Difficulties in sequencing mean that many dyslexic learners may understand the concepts involved in a maths question and know what has to be achieved, but are unable to correctly sequence the procedures to achieve the right answer. They may also find it difficult to explain how they arrived at the answer, even when they are successful.

Speed of information processing

Slow information processing will mean that work in the classroom often goes too fast to allow for sufficient practice and consolidation. Dyslexic learners may need more time for understanding the question and for overlearning.

How can you help learners with dyslexia to learn maths?

Of course, the principles of good practice apply to the teaching of maths as much as to any other teaching. Specific points relating to the Adult Numeracy Core Curriculum are listed below. Access for All is another useful resource. This section draws on the Department for Education and Skills document The National Numeracy Strategy - Guidance to Support Pupils with Dyslexia and Dyscalculia

Number

  • Use multisensory methods to help learners with the basics, such as counting accurately, distinguishing number symbols that are similar in shape and recognising number patterns. The use of fraction walls, circles, or other visual aids may help. Squared paper helps with organisation and accuracy. Work with concrete materials wherever you can.
  • Allow time for overlearning of key number facts.
  • Learners benefit from being shown number patterns that are extensions of earlier knowledge, for example 3 + 2 = 5, 43 + 2 = 45.
  • Dyslexic learners may find the transfer of a learned sequence, say, 90, 80, 70… to a modified sequence 92, 82, 72..., challenging. Base ten blocks or coins may help illustrate which digit changes and which remains constant.

Calculations

  • Encourage learners to use jottings to prevent them losing track mid-process.
  • Mental calculations often favour working with the most significant digit first. It may be useful for some learners to apply this approach to written calculations.
  • Calculators help with the speed of processing and with difficulties remembering symbols and operations.
  • Get learners to talk through what they are doing as they work, always using the same mathematical language. This helps not only the process of calculation but the mastering of the language.
  • Take care not to overemphasise the mechanics of maths at the expense of the meaning. A ‘big picture’ visual overview on the board or flipchart can draw on dyslexic learners’ strengths and build confidence in the idea that maths is conquerable.

Solving problems

  • Explain mathematical vocabulary. Wherever possible, use images or give examples from a real context. Make sure language problems are sorted out before learners attempt to solve a problem.
  • Only use abstract terminology once learners have understood the relevant concepts. Use informal or colloquial ‘translations’ alongside formal vocabulary.

Measures, shape and space

  • Dyslexic learners may find drawing shapes challenging. Support such as joining dots or modelling in plasticine adds a multisensory approach.

Handling data

  • The points on a grid and the x- and y-axes of graphs can be confused by some dyslexic learners. A simple mnemonic – ‘along the corridor and up the stairs’ – may help.
  • Diagrams are easier to interpret if different colours are used to represent the data.
  • Learning and using the terms mode, median and mean is difficult to master as they all begin with the same letter. Use separate coloured index cards with the words and their meanings written on them.

‘We use spiral learning, that’s going back and revisiting what you’ve done…the cumulative bit. Traditionally, maths teaching has been that you do something and then you leave it behind…and links across certain topics aren’t made. Maths can be taught in very much a linear fashion, you see maths as a set of strands and they have little to do with each other. We try and work across those strands and show that number goes across, we get students to have a feel for number.

Maths…gets abstract very quickly, so link it to a practical activity or their experience wherever you can. Make them aware of the kind of errors they are likely to make – they might miss out a step in a sequence, you have to think of how their dyslexia is likely to impact on them.’

Teacher teaching numeracy to learners with dyslexia