The Paradox of the Math Whiz
Some children with dyslexia have very strong mathematical skills, and they are often able to understand very advanced mathematical concepts and calculations. Often the knack for math was demonstrated very early, perhaps when the child was able to understand and apply concepts of multiplication or fractions as a preschooler. Yet these budding math geniuses often encounter problems at school. Typically, they have difficulty learning their multiplication tables; they have problems with paper-and-pencil math, such as with the concept of “borrowing” in multidigit subtraction or with doing long division; and they often are able to correctly give the answer to a complex problem but are at a loss to explain how they arrived at it.
If your child follows this pattern, he may experience difficulties in school, particularly during the elementary and middle school years, because of his inability to satisfy the teacher's expectations for written math. Your child may write the correct answer to problems on a math worksheet or exam, but be denied credit because he failed to write out the steps for solving the problem, or because he wrote the steps incorrectly. You may observe him following a process of writing the answer to a problem first, then working backwards to write the steps. He may be able to understand advanced concepts in algebra or trigonometry, but prone to make frequent errors in calculation. Don't worry, he's in good company — Albert Einstein had the same problems.
You may be surprised to find that your child with strong math skills is not interested in working with math manipulatives. This is because, unlike the math-challenged child, your son already understands the concepts and has strong internal visual imagery. He does not need help with concepts, but rather with learning to associate his intuitive answer with the words used to describe the concepts.
The reason for this disparity in skill level is that there are two separate modes of thought used for math problems. Researchers have found that when students memorize their multiplication tables or do precise mathematical calculations, they rely in part on language processes of their brain — thus, in one study, if bilingual students were taught math procedures in one language, they had difficulty doing the same procedures when the problem was presented in the other language, despite their fluency in both. However, another part of the brain governs understanding of mathematical and spatial relationships — for example, recognizing that the number 56 is larger than 12. In the language experiment, the bilingual students could perform equally well on those sorts of math generalization tasks in either language; they were relying on their inherent sense of concepts of quantity or size, or their ability to visualize the problem, rather than on language.
The problem for your math whiz child, then, is actually the same as the problem experienced by the child with dyslexia who struggles: both have difficulty using and applying words and symbols to mathematical concepts. Thus, you can help your math-capable child in the same way you would help the math-challenged child, except that in most cases you don't need to teach the underlying concepts.
Another reason that your child may struggle with paper-and-pencil arithmetic is that she instinctively uses different strategies for solving most math problems. Students with strong spatial reasoning skills understand that numbers can be manipulated in a number of ways, and they will tend to adopt different approaches to more efficiently resolve different problems. They are often very good with mental math, sometimes amazing others with how quickly they can answer a difficult problem, such as multiplying 19 × 21 — the math whiz understands immediately that this problem is the same as (20 × 20) − 1.
The language-based math processes that cause so much difficulty are generally functions of basic arithmetic; in more advanced mathematics, understanding of basic numerical and spatial relationships takes precedence. If your child is not discouraged by early experiences with grade-school math, he is likely to do very well in high school and college.