Discussing the Dyslexic Mathematical Brain
Hello all I’m finally back with the next instalment! Apologises for my long absence, things have been pretty mad since the turn of the New Year.
I’ve been wanting to write a post about maths and dyslexia for a while now. Last year I completed some really awesome training for my job role based on dyslexia and how to support those who are dyslexic. Crucially two sessions covered the impact dyslexia can have on maths; something I had never really considered before. It really opened my eyes and further emphasised how dyslexia can effect more than just ones spelling, reading and writing ability. This fascinating training session provides the basis for this blog, alongside my own experiences of learning and teaching maths.
Even since I was primary school I have always struggled with maths. Although I passed my maths GCSE I didn’t understand what I was doing and why the calculations worked. Whilst at secondary school, I was one of those awkward students who could do the A grade questions at the back of papers but not the easier E and D grade questions at the front. For me I had to accept that maths is set games where you learnt the rules and play the game. In this way, different types of mathematical questions require different ‘rules’ or calculations you must follow in order to the get the right answers. Nowadays as I look and reflect back upon my experience of maths, I tell myself that you don’t necessarily have to understand everything you are doing or ask why and how these calculations work. Whilst at university I worked as a GCSE maths tutor helping D/C borderline students in a local secondary school I used to tell the students I was working with exactly the same thing. I would emphasise to these students that they didn’t need to worry about understanding and getting every question correct. The main focus of the ‘mathematical assembly line’ was simply just getting enough marks and learning enough calculations to pass the exam.
When we think about difficulty in understanding and acquiring maths skills, many people may simply think of dyscalculia. Commonly labelled as ‘number dyslexia’ dyscalculia is another subtype of neurodiversity that effects one ability to process, understand and conceptualise mathematical/arithmetic information. Individuals diagnosed with dyscalculia may struggle to retain mathematical vocabulary and calculations, have difficulty in applying these to different styles of questions and may have weak mental arithmetic, such as having difficulty counting backwards and sequencing numbers correctly. Despite this similar to dyslexia dyscalculia does not impair ones intellectual ability, as emphasised by the British Dyslexia Association. However it is vital to note that dyslexia itself can also affect the retainment and understanding of mathematical concepts.
Firstly, and for me personally, the main issue dyslexia has on mathematical ability concerns memory. As outlined in previous posts, many dyslexics have difficulties with auditory and working memory meaning that they can find it hard to recall and memorise information. In terms of mathematical problems solving, dyslexic individuals may struggle to remember how to do calculations, how to sequence numbers and may have difficulties in transferring knowledge from one situation to another. Thus similar to the language and literacy difficulties dyslexia brings to the table, dyslexia can have a huge impact on learning in maths. When I look back on my maths lessons at school I vividly remember being able to do calculations and remember formulas in one lesson but by the next I would have forgotten what do to. Complex sums and formulae, for example algebra and trigonometry, would need frequent revisiting which emphasises how important repetition and overlearning is for dyslexics. To be fair even now the thought of trigonometry makes me bloody nervous!
In addition to memory dyslexics can also struggle with the written elements of mathematics. Reading long and complex questions can become laborious and challenging and, after this stage, picking out the vital information to answer the question in the right way can become a struggle. Furthermore due to these literacy/language difficulties processing speed and interpreting questions can take longer within dyslexic individuals. Therefore calculating and answering questions can be more time-consuming. Difficulty with sequencing and writing letters in the correct order can be common issues within dyslexics. Most notably, this can be present in maths work where individuals can confuse and mix up the order of numbers and mathematical symbols in calculations. Thus, as you can see decoding and interpreting both the written English elements of maths and the mathematical concepts themselves can be extremely challenging for dyslexics.
Thirdly, research does suggest that dyslexics appear to favour addition over the other three mathematical operations (subtraction, multiplication and division). Within maths individuals are given the luxury of having a variety of methods that can all equal the same correct answer. For example, a subtraction based problem can be solved using either of these popular methods: the column method or a number line. Using myself as an exemplar, rather embarrassingly for an adult I still have to use a number line when completing subtraction problems. Crucially though, this method involves addition, as a person starts at the left hand side of the line and adds up the difference between the two numbers. Consequently this somewhat supports the notion that dyslexics can prefer addition based methods compared to others. Personally I just can’t get my head around the column method. I’ve been show it countless times yet people always go through it way to fast. But this is the joy of maths; there is a method that suits everyone. Whether you are dyslexic or not, there is a method that works for everyone that can get them the right answer. It’s just a case of exploring different methods or options and finding the right one that suits that person best.
To sum up, I hope this post has helped uncover how both dyscalculia and dyslexia can affect individual’s mathematical abilities. It is absolutely vital to note that dyslexia can have a huge impact on individual’s ability to understanding, break down and answer questions due to the fundamental language/literacy elements present in all school and educational subjects. However despite this, it has been discussed that dyslexic individuals can still succeed in maths-based subjects as maths is simply a game of many rules where individuals find the method of working that suits them best.