Overcoming obstacles for maths learners with dyslexia

|6 min read

Isn’t dyslexia all about reading and writing? Not all learners struggle with maths, but many learners with dyslexia face extra challenges in maths class. Here’s how you can help.

Dyslexia causes children to struggle in reading and writing, but it also impacts how learners progress in maths. Educational psychologist Dr Lynn Joffe found that as many as 60 percent of dyslexic learners could have significant difficulties with maths. This is usually because of three main cognitive difficulties: phonological deficit, memory, and processing speed.

So what are the obstacles facing learners with dyslexia? How do they impact maths? And more importantly what can you do to help learners overcome these difficulties?

Obstacle 1: Reading and comprehension

Learning the language of maths can be very demanding for learners with dyslexia. Learners have to master vocabulary (subtract, fractions, triangle), symbols (+, ÷, %), and concepts (doubling, halving). Struggling to master these ideas can have a knock-on effect on their progress.

Take a simple calculation like 43 + 27. To start the calculation, a learner has to know what the + symbol means and write down the numbers correctly. If the calculation is used in a word problem, a learner has to understand that words like ‘sum’ or ‘total’ mean they’ll have to add.

To support learners with dyslexia in reading comprehension, try these strategies:

  • Use the bar model to visualise problems: learners with dyslexia often have difficulty reading word problems and understanding what the problem is about. The bar model acts as a bridge between the words and the abstract calculation.
  • Use aperture cards: when learners with dyslexia are faced with a page of calculations, they can struggle to keep track of which calculation they’re working on. Aperture cards (where only one calculation at a time is visible) help learners keep track.
  • Use textbooks: give every child with dyslexia their own textbook. This is particularly helpful for learners with dyslexia who find it difficult and distracting to work from the board.

Obstacle 2: Memory and processing

Memory plays a big part in mathematical fluency. Learners need to be able to choose a method to solve a problem, remember the steps of their method, and accurately recall the number facts they’ll need.

Let’s return to our earlier calculation: 43 + 27. There are at least three different mental strategies learners could use to answer this question.

  1. Adding 40 to 27, and then adding 3
  2. Adding 20 to 43, and then adding 7
  3. Adding the tens and then adding the units

Along with drawing on long-term memory, learners need to rely on their short-term memory to keep track of the numbers involved as they work through the calculation.

To support learners with dyslexia with memory and processing, try these strategies:

  • Focus on conceptual understanding rather than procedure to help support learners with poor short-term and working memory.
  • If learners forget procedures and number facts, encourage the use of manipulatives like ten frames and two-coloured counters to visualise number bonds.
  • Avoid any time pressure as this compromises working memory. Using a one-problem approach also helps as it gives learners time to understand and work on the problem.
  • Learners might grasp an idea during the lesson but can’t retain that information. A ‘little and often’ approach is useful where concepts and facts are revisited frequently. A spiral approach to lessons supports this.
  • Emphasise concrete and pictorial representations to help learners retain information in their long-term memory.
  • Learners with dyslexia often lose the thread of multi-step calculation and can’t perform mental maths at speed. You can support them by visualising problems, using diagrams, and supporting learning with concrete materials.

Obstacle 3: Carrying out written calculations

Formal written methods rely on memory, but also require learners to write down calculations accurately. As children progress through the school years, they become more reliant on jottings and formal written methods to solve problems.

If 43 + 27 was part of a multi-step question, then a learner might want to record their answer before moving onto the next step. If the question requires a formal written method, like 43 × 27, then they’d have to set out the calculation properly, record the carry digits, and write all digits down correctly. Simply writing down a digit incorrectly leads to a wrong answer, even though the mental calculations are correct.

To support learners with dyslexia with written methods, try these strategies:

  • If a learner has orientation difficulties, like reversing the order of digits, you can colour code digits into those that are formed in a clockwise direction and those that are anticlockwise. Clockwise digits — 1, 2, 3, 7. Anticlockwise digits — 0, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9.
  • Use squared paper and encourage one digit per square. This helps learners set out calculations in the right columns and tidy up messy presentation.
  • If you teach with Maths — No Problem! use the Let’s Learn section as a scaffold for how to set out calculations.
  • A learner with left/right confusion will perform calculations in the wrong direction. You can help by highlighting directions using colour and arrows, like this:
An arrow going left to right is above a long division problem and an arrow going right to left is above an addition problem

Obstacle 4: Self-esteem and maths anxiety

Confidence and resilience play a huge part in learner’s enjoyment and progress in maths. Many learners feel like maths exposes them to failure and they’d rather not attempt a question than try and get it wrong.

To support learners with dyslexia with their self-esteem, try these strategies:

  • Encourage learners to collaborate during lessons. Collaboration will help learners to build their confidence in maths and to persevere with a problem as they don’t feel the pressure of working in isolation.
  • Focus on a learner’s strengths. Using a maths programme that emphasises visualisation, creativity, spotting patterns, and ‘bigger picture’ thinking will play to the strengths of learners with dyslexia.
  • Develop a growth mindset in your classroom. This approach to learning is all about creating a classroom environment where pupils feel safe to explore and discover, take risks, and learn through trial and error.

Every learner has some weaknesses, but with the right support you can help them shine. In the same way, every learner has their own strengths, and the right sort of encouragement can build up their confidence and help them achieve maths mastery.

Joffe, L. (1980) ‘Dyslexia and attainment in school mathematics’. Dyslexia Review, 3(1)