Mathematics and Dyslexia










After a few consecutive years of scheduling conflicts, I finally got to attend the Quebec Teacher’s Association convention.

My first workshop of the day was “Success in math with dyslexia (and other visually-based learning differences)” by Lori Kiteala. The syllabus promised to expose how math is perceived by the dyslexic brain and I was definitely not disappointed.

I recently became more curious about dyslexia, having once thought the issue was restricted to problems with b’s and d’s and a tendency toward mental fatigue. Thanks to Lori Kiteala, I now know differently.

A very long list of potential symptoms can signal dyslexia.


Today’s conference opened my eyes to a learning disability of which I knew very little. I will feel far more capable of teaching a dyslexic once I fully understand how they perceive spoken language, written communication and mathematical concepts.

For now, here are the critical elements that I will retain:

1- Dyslexics transition well to high school because they have spent all of primary school acquiring learning strategies
2- Dyslexics tend to show great strength of character
3 -Dyslexics are hard-working and tenacious, so much so that they often go on to complete advanced degrees.

This list makes me want to work with them even more!

As the speaker continued her presentation, I was captivated by her intentionally dramatic and color-accented slides. She offered many visual examples of how dyslexics “misinterpret” mathematical situations.

At the risk of writing an overly long blog, I share some of my new learnings here:

1. Dyslexics are literal thinkers. As one example, I remember a friend teaching young kids how to interpret idioms such as “raining cats and dogs”. In a similar way, math tutors and teachers need to be conscientious about the words they choose to teach procedures. Something as simple as “re-copy the algebra on each line” or “the left side is for positives” can be interpreted unexpectedly.

2. Previewing content. This accommodation is very helpful to dyslexics. A teacher who sends out pre-reading material can greatly help a dyslexic student. Admittedly, this can be difficult for a busy or novice teacher.

3. Peer-teaching.  When two students work together at the white board, it helps the learning. Allow dyslexics to move around and stand up.

4. Sub vocalizations.  Quietly talking through math or science problems is an accommodation frequently allowed on examinations and it can make a huge impact on marks. Students are moved to a separate room so as not to disturb others with murmuring sounds.

5. Exam coaching. Dyslexics use considerably more brain energy and are usually wiped out (exhausted) after a three-hour exam. A coach can keep them going. Trained coaches can motivate a student to remain focussed. This is even more necessary when extra time is allocated for disability (3 + 1 = 4 hours!).

6. Color coding. Using colored, fine-point, felt pens can make note-taking smoother and more visually organized in a copybook. Using up to 6 different colors can help learners locate various notes (e.g. black for titles, blue for notes, red for formulas, purple for examples, etc). Boys, as much as girls, should use a variety of bright fuchsia highlighters from Staples (green, mauve, yellow, pink, orange).

7. Exam Strategies. Having only one question per exam page will reduce visual clutter, mental fatigue and discouragement. Letting dyslexics separate their exam sheets into two piles (remove the staple) can help. In one pile go the problems they can confidently solve. In the other pile go the questions that may be challenging or discouraging. After students have finished the first pile, let them get up, change desks, stretch or drink water. They may need the change of scenery to tackle the second pile.

9. Different perception. Let us not assume that a dyslexic sees exactly what we do. As one example, most of us take for granted a visual display of two similar triangles. Teachers often draw them  juxtaposed to show the ratio of their sides. A dyslexic may actually see a small triangle and a trapezoid. (refer to image). This difficulty may explain why some students struggle to learn trigonometry. dsylexic similar triangles

10. Fractions may be erroneously interpreted as a number less than zero (a<0). This may explain why my science students struggle with operations on fractions (ex.: ½ divided by ½).

Dyslexics are particularly astute and can excel at higher math. They just need the right support, a few accommodations to ease the burden of note-taking and many mental breaks during long exams.

I left the conference with so many tricks that can help tutoring but I should mention that, through no fault of their own, dyslexics can be resistant to the benefits of tutoring. Tutors need to be extra patient, creative and empathetic to this reality.

Thanks to my colleagues who let me photograph them at the conference.
2013-11 Science math and language teachers



2 thoughts on “Mathematics and Dyslexia

  1. Very valuable post, Erin! Thank you for taking the time to outline the ways that teachers can help these students NOW. All students can benefit from the techniques you have shared.

    • Thank you Gail. I appreciate the comments. Of course, credit goes to the speaker, Ms Kiteala, who was curious enough to observe dyslexics in action and thoughtful enough to collect those observations for the greater good. She offered to share her slides (my fingersbare crossed). I am inspired by the fact that she thought to ask the simple question to her students , “What exactly do YOU see? Walk me through this.” Now I will try this as I walk around the class helping struggling students.

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