Maths can cause problems in ther same way as reading and spelling does for learners with dyslexia. This is because there are differences in the way thinking, processing and memory are organised. So you get the pupil who can understand and do higher order maths but who makes ‘careless’ errors  from misreading the problem, or reversing digits or sequences of digits, that make nonsense of the calculations. Confusion about maths symbols and language exacerbates memory and processing difficulties.

A student may be able to understand the maths concepts, but if s/he can’t read the question, or read it sufficiently accurately, s/he will be unable to work to her/his mathematical ability. A talking word processor may help with ‘wordy’ problems, but not when formulae are invovled.

And of course, a learner with dyscalculia will have much more significant problems. Dyscalculia is ‘a specific learning difficulty or difficulty involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending maths’.

Dyscalculia may be likened to dyslexia in that an individual might suffer difficulties with computation, with no impairment of abstract mathematical reasoning abilities. I don’t know where I heard this, but there is some evidence to show that Einstein was not very good at adding up. Likewise, someone may be more than capable of understanding sophisticated language but struggle to decode or encode individual words.

Steve Chinn writes:

Children with special needs have more problems with aspects of mathematical long-term memory, notably retrieving basic facts from memory. They are slower to retrieve and process information. Also, they often have poor short term and working memories, both of which are key pre-requisite skills for mental arithmetic and indeed mathematics in general. …

Children who do perform badly in maths do not remember facts and processes as effectively as their better performing peers. This problem is exacerbated by their lack of effective compensatory strategies. Their strategy for overcoming the deficit is counting and counting is a low level cognitive skill with many disadvantages. Better performing peers use linking strategies which are based on understanding numbers, operations and how they relate.

 In an interesting article Chinn writes

 A number of researchers over the years have identified two thinking styles. Although they have a good selection of labels, basically one style is formulaic and sequential and the other is intuitive and holistic. In work done with American colleagues, we call the two styles ‘inchworm’ and ‘grasshopper’. Most learners will lie somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes of style and indeed this blend is likely to be the most successful style as success in maths tends to require flexibility in thinking.

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