Teaching maths to kids isn't an easy task.
Maths teachers need to be knowledgeable, motivating and strict yet empathetic.
Having these qualities means teachers are able to enthuse their pupils whilst also making sure they have the right amount of self-discipline to stay on track with their education.
Reading and Writing Difficulties Affect Learning Maths
Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) which causes problems with reading, writing, spelling and processing information.
SpLDs such as dyslexia and it lesser known cousins, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and dyspraxia aren't just detrimental to a person's academic career, but their day-to-day lives as they affect short-term and working memory, concentration and organisation. Typically associated as a reading disorder, dyslexia also affects a child's comprehension of maths concepts.
Whatever a student's SpLD, it is crucial that they don't feel overwhelmed when learning maths or any other subject, so that they are not at risk of falling behind their classmates.
To give your student the best chance of success, whatever their age, experts recommend taking a multisensory approach to learning to ensure that information is received through various channels.
Just like some people are visual learners and other kids learn by doing, people with SpLDs have learning preferences, but it helps if the information is repeated by a different method.
This will help kids to develop a well-rounded understanding of the maths topic and lay the basic math foundations for more complex operations.
The Multisensory Approach to Maths Lessons
This approach uses senses such as sight, hearing, touch and movement to transfer and retain information.
So how should you go about this?
When teaching maths to a dyslexic student, you should make your learning strategies as visual as possible.
Use revision cards to write out formulae and draw them in practice if you can.
Add fun activities into your math lessons. Because of their concentration difficulties, playing mental maths games can be useful for students with SpLDs as it involves them in the learning process without overwhelming them.
Students can also log onto maths games websites in their own time. Free math websites such as Primary Games Arena are full of fun math games for kids to practice solving math problems involving counting, telling time, order of operations, times tables, inequalities, probability, reasoning, fractions, adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, sorting digits and practicing sudoku.
From the point of view of the student, this approach to learning is more interesting and rewarding as completing educational games and math puzzles comes with a feeling of accomplishment. This can help to improve self-esteem and confidence in their abilities and math skills.
Colours can also be incredibly helpful for children with dyslexia and other SpLDs as they serve as a visual aid which can be used to organise revision materials into topics or group and distinguish ideas.
Colour can be used when writing on a whiteboard, decimal numbers and place value can be demonstrated by writing the tens in a certain colour, for example, and coloured paper can be used for handouts (some dyslexic people are particularly sensitive to the appearance of black ink on white paper).
Tip: Make sure you mark your student's worksheets with a different colour than they have used, however, stay away from red when correcting timed quizzes and math worksheets, as it has negative connotations.
Use of Time
People with SpLDs have a poor sense of time going by, this is why they struggle to concentrate for long periods.
They can easily be distracted if they have to listen to the teacher talk for a long time or follow a video which is more than 10 minutes long.
When it comes to making the most of the available time, keep in mind that dyslexic people have a poor short-term memory which can make it hard to take notes and follow instructions.
Helping People Affected by SpLDs to Learn Maths
The most important thing is to take your time. Don't rush lessons and give your student enough time to copy from the board and take their own notes.
Remember to make sure that the learner has fully understood a chapter before moving onto the next one.
Repeat instructions as many times as is necessary, emphasising key words and vocabulary so the student is familiar with how to appropriately use mathematical language.
Concentration and Motivation
Take plenty of breaks. Dyslexic people are more productive when only concentrating for short periods of time and have the opportunity to move from their seat.
People with SpLDs need to move around and alternate between math activities, so don't hesitate to regularly change between topics. This keeps students' minds engaged with what they are learning as information is always fresh.
Dyslexia and other SpLDs do not prevent learning, but they slow it down. However, once tutors and tutees are familiar with each other and the task at hand, students can make good progress and become the true mathematician they always wanted to be.
Having Enough Support
SpLDs cause problems with the ability to retain and process information. In particular, this means problems with short-term and working memory.
To combat this difficulty, it is recommended that a maths tutor give out handouts and chapter summaries which serve as visual aids when the time comes to revise.
Use visual markers such as numbers, highlighters and asterisks to define the most important information.
Are boys better than girls at Maths? We debunk the maths myth here.
Organisation and Structure
When providing maths help to a dyslexic person, you should help them organise course content and ideas. This will help them to organise their thoughts and knowledge in their own mind by having a visual representation of how topics are interlinked.
Create organisational models during your maths lessons and encourage your student to use them in their day-to-day lives.
Here are some examples of organisational models:
- Use a colour-coded system to organise topics and make it easier for the student to access previous notes and worksheets.
- Stick to a routine. Dyslexic people find it difficult to view themselves in the near future, so having a schedule can help them prepare for the day ahead. Draw up a calendar for them to stick to their bedroom wall so they can quickly look at and modify it if they need to.
- Get your student to use an exercise book for their work. This way, all worksheets and homework are in the same place, so there is a smaller chance of work going missing.
Provide Other Resources
The more math resources and help you provide for an SpLD student, the bigger the reward.
If you can, try and suggest that they receive help from teachers other than yourself. Providing variety in learning is beneficial for students and teachers alike, as everyone is supported by each other.
The student should also feel comfortable to discuss their learning with other pupils at their school or college, however, if an educator fears that they are falling behind their classmates due to their learning difficulties, they should seek one-to-one guidance for the pupil.
There is a lot of technology available to help students with SpLDs. For instance, there are interactive math games, voice-activated word processing software and digital recorders, which all appeal to the way in which the dyslexic brain works.
Tips for Teaching Dyslexic Children Trying to Learn Maths
- Don't offer wordy handouts to read as a revision method
- At the beginning of each lesson, recap what was leanrt in the one before
- Always break down operations into small steps, giving visual indications to help students follow along
- Use colours when teaching and highlight key words
- Regularly revisit topics covered in previous lessons to give students a chance to consolidate their knowledge
- Space out homework to give learners enough time to understand: instead of learning 3 theorems over a fortnight, learn 1 theorem per week and check the student's knowledge before moving onto the next one
- Help students memorise the essential elements of the course and let them represent the main points with diagrams, graphs, and drawings. As the learning progresses, the pupil will have made a folder of their own notes which they can use for revision.
- At the end of each lesson, make a simple list of the main points, emphasising key words. The aim of this is to break the lesson down into sections.
No matter what their age, helping a dyslexic child with math is rarely easy, however, it is incredibly rewarding when they get the right support.
Then it comes to teaching maths to children with SpLDs, it's not just subject knowledge that matters but the ability to be supportive in a way that is beneficial for the learner.
Patience is of utmost importance, as is being aware of why the strengths and weaknesses of dyslexic people vary the way the do. For example, dyslexic people sometimes speak very quickly, since they have better visual understanding, but when it comes to reading, they can be very slow.
The more visual aid you provide to a dyslexic student, the more likely they will be able to understand and remember what they're being taught. Let them use graph or lined paper to solve maths problems. Lined paper is particularly useful for tracking a problem horizontally or vertically, depending on the type of maths question.
Why not use coloured paper in your lessons? This can be useful to people who suffer from Irlen Syndrome, which is linked to SpLDs.
Being Empathetic in Maths Lessons
Finally, never forget to demonstrate empathy, tolerance and patience with your pupils. Explain as clearly as possible, give concrete examples for each explanation, and always look to motivate the learner.
A maths tutor needs to teach students various methods to correct their own mistakes in maths exercises as a form of lesson revision.
Avoid using too much complex vocabulary and opt for visual examples instead. Since 'dyslexia' means 'difficulty with words', it's best to keep things simple if you can to avoid any confusion.
There is no one way of helping people with SpLDs to understand math concepts such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, negative numbers, algebra, geometry, graphing, rounding, estimation, arithmetic, solving math word problems, calculus, long division of polynomial equations and finding the exponent, but with enough math practice, these students are also capable of maths mastery.