Up to 70% of dyslexic people also have dyscalculia (specific math disability), although specific math supports or interventions are rarely a part of public school IEPs or 504’s.
Part of the reason there is less support for math among dyslexic students in the US is that the International Dyslexia Association and National Institute of Health definitions do not mention math, whereas other definitions of dyslexia such as the one from the British Dyslexia Association do.
The consequence of narrow definitions of dyslexia, is that some dyslexia specialists may focus almost exclusively on reading (and to a less extent writing), and consequently neglect supports for dyslexic students in math, organization, foreign language learning, and other important aspects of school.
But math is important for all aspects of life outside of school as well as being essential for many selective higher education majors and careers.
More important than understanding “dyslexia”, is understanding people with dyslexia.
If over half of people with dyslexia, also have dyscalculia, and math is recognized as important to math education, than more specific and appropriate education should be a routine part of IEPs, 504s, and educational planning.
Typical challenges associated with math include math facts fluency, rote memorization of procedures, symbol difficulties for some, and language factors that can affect word problems and math terminology, especially if technical words are similar or they have different meanings from meanings found in routine conversational language. For instance the word “right” when describing a right triangle (a triangle with 90 degrees) is different from turning right while driving. Being aware of these challenges as well as being aware of students’ strengths so that they can be leveraged in instruction can make learning more efficient and enjoyable for dyslexic students.
MATH EDUCATION BASED ON STRENGTHS
Within mathematics, dyslexic students often show a spiky profile as is seen with language-related testing, and as with language, considerable strengths also exist alongside weaknesses.
Dyslexic strengths in math include math conceptual ability and math reasoning; weaknesses typically involve math fact retrieval, procedural learning and sequencing, language factors, and math symbols.
Tremendous math instruction mismatches can occur when elementary school teachers who are asked to teach every subject, lack an in-depth understanding of math – and so teach math through procedures and rote memorization rather than conceptually with multisensory experiences and deep understanding.
Math education for dyslexic students should be based on strengths, especially their strengths in conceptual understanding and reasoning.
Dyslexic MIND strengths stand for Material Reasoning, Interconnected Reasoning, Narrative Reasoning, and Dynamic Reasoning.
These strengths also apply to subjects such as mathematics.
If a student seems to be struggling with a math concept – like equivalent fractions, it may be that more time needs to be spent recognizing what different numbers mean when presented in fractions and fraction problems – and for that, hands-on work with materials like using paper folding or making or buying fraction manipulatives can help students “get” what the numbers are trying to describe.
Most parents and teachers were taught math this way themselves, so it may take some adjustment, but students can improve their math problem solving quickly once they understand the notation and underlying concepts.
Also understanding that many young students with dyslexia are likely to be susceptible to symbol confusion and working memory overload, should mean that explanations should be presented simply with visual examples in small bits, until it’s clear that basics have been mastered.
Some students may need to use math manipulatives for homework as well as on exams, and some may benefit from tutors familiar with dyslexic students.
Here’s a quickie video on how to teach beginning fractions with Lego bricks.