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At right are the states that have adopted Common Core State Standards. If you live in a Common Core state and your student attends public school chances are they frequently are asked to “show their work”.

There can be significant challenges for dyslexic students showing work because to do so requires a great deal of verbal working memory, word retrieval, executive function, and writing, all tasks that can overload each other.

As with many curricula, the intentions and logic behind some of the choices seem reasonable; but also like many programs, the implementation has significant flaws so that students can become trapped in the process. Students must conform to a curriculum or fail rather than a curriculum being designed to meet the needs of students.

For instance, math teachers Katherine Beals and Garry Garelick reviewed some of the maddening requirements of “Show Your Work” in an article in The Atlantic:

They shared a 3rd grade teacher’s marking down a student’s paper because in response to a question of using a “repeated addition strategy to solve 5 x 3, he wrote 5 + 5 + 5 instead of 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3.

Even the array in the next problem down was marked wrong because the teacher wanted to see four rows of six instead of six rows of four.

At its worst, such a practice is teaching that different ways of arriving at correct answers is wrong. The approach discourages flexibility in math problem solving which should be the big picture goal of math instruction in general.

For dyslexic students, it is especially important to use strength-based strategies for teaching math whenever possible. If verbal working memory and rote retrieval of basic math facts is weak, then allowing students to diagram, recognize patterns, make pictures, watch videos and animations, and use a calculator are all valuable if their math understanding and reasoning grow.

Teachers of dyslexic students (they are likely to be in every classroom) should be aware that many struggle with letter and number writing automaticity. As a result writing of any kind (including showing work) can overload working memory and cause students to be lost in their problems.

Waivers for show your work problems may be necessary for students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or students with ADD.

Understanding the ‘why’ behind steps of math problem solving can be essential for many dyslexic learners to master mathematics. Learning math principles through hands-on activities and manipulatives will help students reason with math without resorting to long written explanations.

For many dyslexic students, writing doesn’t really come ‘online’ until the upper elementary or middle school years. Holding students back or having written work act as a gatekeeper for learning higher math concepts is antithetical to the principles of the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that bans discrimination against people with disabilities. The law states that schools must undertake simple inexpensive changes that allow students with disabilities to succeed in a school setting.

Many dyslexic learners are spatial and or visual more than verbal. Their insights in to how numbers are related to each other may come suddenly without words and without intervening steps (Steve Chinn’s grasshoppers rather than inchworms). If students arrive at correct answers, but struggle with putting their explanation into words, teachers could see whether working from a bank of possible answers or explanations could scaffold the process and not overwhelm a student’s working memory. Over time, the supports could be taken away after being given more practice with the possible choices for how math problems were solved. To read more examples of math students with nonverbal rather than verbal strengths, click on the papers below.

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