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The Impact of Dyslexia on Mathematics

By:  Rosalind W. Rothman, Ed.D., Director, Language and Learning Associates &
Claire Lavin, Ph.D., Professor, College of New Rochelle

While teachers  and parents are well aware of the effect of dyslexia on reading, they often overlook its impact on mathematics. The  mastery of the symbolic language of mathematics involves many verbal cognitive processes that can be affected by dyslexia.  Ignoring the impact of dyslexia on the mastery of mathematics can hamper a child’s progress in school and in life.

Dyslexia is the inability to decode and obtain meaning from the printed word. It is a learning disability, not a condition due to inadequate instruction or intelligence.  Estimates of the incidence of dyslexia in school age children range from 5 to 10%  (Shaywitz, Shaywitz, Fletcher, & Esteban, 1990).   Dyslexia most clearly impacts reading, spelling,  and written expression.  However,  dyslexia may also affect mathematics achievement. Approximately 5.9 % of  students are identified with a math disability, a number similar to those with a reading disability (Fuchs, Fuchs, Powell,  Seethaler,  Cirino, & Fletcher, 2008).  

Mathematics has a symbolic language  whose practical function is to express spatial and quantitative relationships.   Number sense is acquired in developmental stages similar to those in the acquisition of language. The process begins as soon as children begin to move and explore their environments, placing one box into another, stringing beads, learning “all gone”, etc.  Spatial relations concepts are based on identification of objects in space, distinguishing right from left, reasoning with abstract designs, and visualizing objects in other positions.  Children first assimilate and integrate non-verbal experiences; then they associate numerical symbols, numbers, and mathematical words such as “less” to these experiences.  Children need to have both experiences  with mathematical relationships and the words  to express them. 

Reading numbers and recalling number names are prerequisites for using them to represent abstract quantities. However, associating the names with the numerals, and recalling them when needed, may be difficult for children with dyslexia. Mastery of numerical operations also involves retrieval of basic facts.  Some children work diligently to learn the multiplication tables but cannot recall them, much to the frustration of teachers and parents.  Such retrieval problems were evident when Rosie , a bright ten year old with dyslexia, and her grandmother worked on learning the names of coins in a homework assignment.  “Grandma,” she said wearily, “ I can tell you that it’s worth ten cents but I don’t know its name.”  The  task of recalling, sequencing, and manipulating figures, shapes, letters, designs,  patterns and numerals and associating them with quantities is analogous to associating  letter names with the corresponding sounds, a task many children with dyslexia find challenging.

Instruction in mathematics is most frequently verbal instruction.  This may be problematic for children with poor verbal comprehension and poor short term auditory memories.  They hear the teacher but do not fully comprehend or recall the concepts and operations she is describing because of language issues. With faulty understanding, they are unable to apply the information correctly. Since mathematical concepts build on one another, this shaky foundation can adversely affect mastery of future concepts. Moreover, the vocabulary of mathematics is unique and can be confusing.  Subtraction problems can be phrased as “less than” “ take away”, “minus”, “subtract”, all of which refer to the same process.  Such multiple  meanings should be directly taught but frequently it is simply assumed that children have learned them.  Word problems embed the math calculations in language.  Performance here is impacted by problems with syntax and vocabulary, as well as calculation problems.  To obtain the correct answer,   children must first comprehend the syntax and vocabulary, understand what the problem is asking, ignore extraneous information,  devise a strategy to solve it,  and retrieve and apply the requisite facts and operations.(Bryant & Bryant, 2008)

Solving algorithms also involves performing operations in correct sequence and reading operational signs correctly.  The symbolic language of math notations, such as decimal points, using x to signify the unknown, exponents, and parentheses, can be confusing.  Some children learn this language incidentally but for others this language must be frequently reinforced.  One eleven year old requested of his teacher, “Tell me which sign it is—the add one or the times one” before starting his calculations. 

Dyslexia may make mastering mathematics difficult.  Teachers and parents must be aware of potential issues and provide the supports necessary to ensure success in mathematics as well as in reading.