Understanding Math Concepts
Most children with dyslexia are ready to understand math concepts, but they often struggle with pencil-and-paper math as it is taught in school. The problem generally stems from difficulty understanding and manipulating math symbols, including numerals as well as symbols for operations, and with difficulty understanding and applying words commonly used to express mathematical concepts. Thus, the language-based disability that is part of dyslexia becomes a liability for learning arithmetic.
Modeling Math Concepts
When your child asks for help with arithmetic, start by finding out whether he understands the concepts underlying the problems he is working on. A child with dyslexia often has unexpected gaps in learning, and so sometimes even a very simple concept may be at the heart of a misunderstanding. Use three-dimensional objects to model mathematical concepts. You might use beans, coins, or small blocks to model functions such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication; you might demonstrate the concept of fractions by measuring liquid in a cup or by cutting a slice of bread into halves or quarters. Place value can be demonstrated with pennies and dimes. If your child understands the relative value of coins, they can also be used to model fractions or equivalencies.
Many arithmetic or algebraic concepts can also be modeled using geometrical shapes, and a set of pattern blocks can be useful to help your child visualize numerical relationships, such as understanding multiplication, division, and fractions. For example, your child can discover that a rectangle constructed of square blocks that is 3 blocks high and 4 blocks wide will have 12 blocks in all — the same as the problem 3 × 4 = 12.
Explain Words and Symbols
Make sure that your child understands all the symbols used in arithmetic problems, and also understands numerals and what they mean. While your child may understand isolated numerals, he may be confused by two-digit numbers, the meaning of 0 (zero), negative numbers, decimals, or commas used in numbers with four or more figures.
Be sure that your child understands all the words used in describing a problem. Your child may be confused by specific terminology — words such as “sum” or “reciprocal,” and he may be equally confused by words that are used outside of mathematics, such as “positive” or “even,” as well as words signifying relationships such as “from” or “than.”
Try to avoid situations where your child must copy problems from a book, as children with dyslexia commonly make transposition errors. If your child must copy, encourage her to vocalize the numbers as she writes them — she is less likely to transpose 346 if she says “three, four, six” or “three hundred forty-six” as she writes the numbers. Your child may prefer to have you dictate the problems to her to write down, rather than trying to copy them on her own.
When your child writes out a mathematical problem, use paper with a grid or graph paper to help her keep the numbers lined up properly. If your child is working from a printed sheet of problems, have her circle operational signs such as (+) or (−) in different colors, so that she understands what is expected with each problem. Check to make sure she has copied correctly before she begins to work the problems.
Use Multiple Approaches
Most mathematical problems can be solved in more than one way; the more complex the math, the more likely it is that there are multiple strategies that can be applied. Often, the conventional algorithms taught in school cause unnecessary confusion. For example, your child may be stymied by the concept of “borrowing” or “regrouping” to subtract 6 from 12 on paper, but might be able to solve the same problem quickly in his head, simply by recognizing that 6 is half of 12. Many very complex arithmetic problems can be solved more efficiently by factoring or manipulating the numbers.
Encourage your child to use his knowledge of number concepts to find different approaches for calculation. Although these skills may lead your child to deviate from the approaches taught in the early years, they are the foundations of understanding algebra and higher mathematical concepts. In the long run, your child will do better in math if he is able to turn a problem on its head or restructure the problem to make it easier, such as restating the problem 15 × 9 as [ (15 × 10) − 15] because it is easier to subtract 15 from 150 than to do double-digit multiplication.