While dyslexia is most often associated with reading and literacy, the neurological-based learning disorder can also affect learning in other subject areas like math.
That's because the characters and symbols used in math represent words, said Jodi Musoff, an educational specialist in the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute.
With dyslexia, any lesson anchored to literacy — be it reading or math — can represent a challenge for students as they are starting to associate symbols with their meanings.
“There's a lot of language involved in math unless you are only thinking about straightforward computation,” said Musoff. “But even to understand computation, students need to understand the language involved.”
Educators shouldn’t assume older students with dyslexia are more grounded in their mathematics understanding, according to Musoff. Instead, teachers should continue to offer support, particularly as lessons move into more abstract concepts.
With any literacy-based activity, students need to anchor the conceptual understanding first, she said. When it comes to math, pupils then need to be able to handle the computational portion of exercises — but only after mastering the literacy component.
“Thinking about those two things separately is helpful,” Musoff said. “Can kids understand what the vocabulary means, can they utilize it and then understand what processes they need to follow when trying to solve a math problem?”
Musoff said one way to check how well students understood a lesson is to give them independent work. When working with students with dyslexia, she said, educators must ensure pupils can complete math problems and come to solutions on their own.
Having them show their understanding of a problem is key. That could include asking a young student to draw the number of cookies left in a subtraction math problem. In that way, educators can be assured that students have mastered both the computational understanding and the literacy pieces of a new mathematical skill.