Supporting Students with Dyslexia in Mathematics
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Many children struggle with mathematics, but what happens when your child also has dyslexia? You are not alone. About 10 percent of a population has dyslexia, the most common form of specific learning difference (SpLD).
Dyslexia affects more than learning of the English Language in our schools. About 50 percent of students with dyslexia also display difficulties in Mathematics.
How can parents better support their children in Mathematics? KSP invites two educational therapists from the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) to share their insights with us. Siti Mariam Binte Daud is a Senior Educational Therapist at DAS and Lecturer at the DAS Academy; and Agaisteen Rebecca Shalinah is a Senior Educational Therapist at DAS and Associate Lecturer at the DAS Academy.
On 24 and 25 June 2020, both of them presented the topic ‘Singapore Math: Supporting Students with Dyslexia in Math’ at the sixth edition of the UNITE SpLD (Uniting Ideas in Teaching Excellence: Specific Learning Differences) Conference 2020, an online conference organised by DAS.
Featuring presentations by 33 experts from seven countries: Australia, China, India, Indonesia, UK, USA and Singapore, the online conference showcased global research covering aspects of behaviour, identification, early intervention, technology, multilingualism, assessment and more.
Let’s hear from these experts how you can better support your child in coping with Mathematics, especially if he or she has dyslexia.
- Can dyslexia affect learning and understanding of mathematics for children? Doesn’t it just affect reading and spelling?
Dyslexia is a language-based learning difficulty that primarily affects one’s ability to read and spell words fluently and accurately. It is also common for students with dyslexia to struggle with phonological awareness, verbal memory and processing speed. These aspects affect their learning of mathematics including understanding of questions.
- What are the main problems that a child with dyslexia encounter when learning Mathematics?
Children with dyslexia who have not developed automaticity and fluency in reading will find it more difficult to focus on the meaning of a text. Most of these children’s mental energy will be spent decoding the words that form the text which can be draining.
Verbal memory, including short-term and working memory, is the ability to remember what you read or hear. Students with dyslexia may have poor working memory that often results in slower processing speed. As such, they struggle to retain information. Since mathematics requires one to remember a series of information while solving a question, it results in a cognitive overload for these students.
For instance, for the following question, ‘923 + 124 = ____’, we would assume that it would not take more than 5 steps to get the answer, as we might have the automaticity to do it. However, If you break down every step in solving this question, from identifying what needs to be done to regrouping to aligning the numbers before arriving at the answer, there is a total of 22 steps!
If students are stuck at any one step, they will not be able to successfully solve the question.
- Is it possible for a child to overcome these problems?
Dyslexia is a life-long learning difference. However, it is possible for children with dyslexia to overcome these problems with proper support and guidance. For a subject like Mathematics, educators and parents need to provide these children with a different strategy or set of instructions, so that they can learn to work independently on understanding questions and applying what they have learned.
- How does a parent find out if dyslexia is affecting the child in learning Mathematics or the child is just not good at the subject?
Not all students with dyslexia struggle with all aspects of the Mathematics subject. Some of these learners may be good with numbers. However, they may not be able to comprehend the question, especially if it is a word problem, due to their language difficulties and this will pose a barrier to their learning of the subject.
Parents may have to observe and analyse the errors made when their children are working on maths questions. When an error is made, parents need to understand the cause of the error. This can be done through a conversation with the child to better understand the error patterns. If the child has difficulty in understanding the question but is able to solve it after an explanation was given, it might be language learning difficulties that are causing the child to perform poorly in maths.
However, it is also possible that the child may have both language and numeracy difficulties. This can be identified when the child is not able to make sense of numbers and their connection with each other. At this stage, parents may want to seek professional help in assessing the child’s ability.
- When should a parent seek help?
If a child has persistent difficulties in learning maths despite repeated instructions, parents are encouraged to seek professional help. Early intervention is important in helping children overcome their learning differences and realise their fullest potential.
- How can parents support their child emotionally when learning Mathematics?
For children with dyslexia, anxiety with mathematics is real but can be overcome. It is essential for their anxiety to be addressed before working on their academic skills. This can be done by planning lessons that are emotionally sound.
Firstly, parents need to uncover the cause behind their child’s struggles with Mathematics. This would help them to understand where the breakdown occurs in the process of doing Mathematics questions.
Once they understand the cause of the anxiety, they can work towards structuring Maths learning in a cumulative and sequential manner; and that new learning is built on previous learning. As much as possible, they should try to make learning playful and fun for their children and relate Maths to everyday tasks so that they can see the application of Maths in a non-intimidating manner.
For example, parents can use food to teach fractions. They can get their children to share pizzas, snacks and drinks among family members according to specified fractions. And of course, they get to eat the food once the task is completed.
- What strategies are available to help children with dyslexia cope with the Mathematics subject better?
Chunking is helpful in reducing the load on working memory. Instead of getting the child to remember separate pieces of information, grouping them into meaningful chunks makes learning easier. Another a good way to enhance a child’s understanding of concepts is tapping on prior knowledge and using actual materials (concrete).
For instance, when teaching fractions, before introducing what fractions are about, it is useful to relate the concept to a real situation such as sharing a piece of cake, pizza or their favourite food with a group of friends. Once they have understood the concept at this level, pictures can be used to represent the object (pictorial). This would help the child to move from concrete to pictorial and eventually to the abstract stage of understanding a concept.
- Can a child with dyslexia ever ace in Mathematics?
With the right support and intervention, it is possible for a child with dyslexia to do well in the subject. It requires customisation of interventional strategies based on in-depth understanding of the learner’s profile and severity of learning difficulties.
- Are there learning institutions that provide support for such children?
DAS provides Maths remediation support for students with dyslexia, amongst its various programmes for students with dyslexia and other SpLDs. Offered by the Specialised Educational Services of DAS, the Maths Programme is an intervention programme that adopts dyslexia-friendly principles to support the needs of learners.
However, it takes a village to raise a child. Parents will need to be in sync with the strategies learned by their children in class and reinforce their learning at home. It is recommended for parents to equip themselves with relevant knowledge and strategies that can be found online or through the courses offered at the DAS Academy. Events such as the Preschool Seminar and UNITE SpLD are other avenues to pick up tips for supporting children beyond the classroom.
- How do such institutions support a child in grasping Mathematics better?
At the DAS, our Maths Programme Educational Therapists customise lessons to suit each learner’s specific needs. Lessons are interactive and engaging, enabling students to touch and move concrete manipulatives to build up their conceptual understanding of maths topics.
Both the DAS Maths Programme and the DAS Academy maths courses focus on three approaches: the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach, the Orton-Gillingham principles and the Polya’s Problem Solving approach. These approaches have been weaved into the curriculum of each lesson to make learning more effective.
For courses at the DAS Academy, visit www.dasacademy.edu.sg or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Is financial assistance available to support children in taking up such classes?
DAS provides bursaries for eligible students. To find out more about bursaries, please contact email@example.com.
Answers provided by:
Siti Mariam, Full-Time Lecturer and Lead Educational Therapist
Rebecca Shalinah, Associate Lecturer and Lead Educational Therapist