Why Do Students With Dyslexia Struggle With Math?

If you have read Why I Love Inclusion, well, then you know that I love inclusion.


Unfortunately, I find that by the time some students get to me in 4th grade, they feel they can’t do things that I believe they can do. They have generalized their own learning disability too broadly, and given up on being “good” at skills for which I feel they have potential.


One example that comes up over and over again is welcoming a student with dyslexia into my classroom, and learning that he or she also has a generic IEP goal for math.


Why is it that so many students with dyslexia struggle in math?

dyslexia and elementary math

I have a theory, but first let’s talk about what dyslexia is.


The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity says, “One thing we know for certain about dyslexia is that this is one small area of difficulty in a sea of strengths.”


The following are some quotes from an article by Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D. that appeared in Scientific American. The full article can be found here.


“Testing the youngsters yearly, we found that dyslexia affects a full 20 percent of schoolchildren…”

“This basic deficit in what is essentially a lower-order linguistic function blocks access to higher order linguistic processes and to gaining meaning from text. Thus, although the language processes involved in comprehension and meaning are intact, they cannot be called into play, because they can be accessed only after a word has been identified.”

“Linguistic processes involved in word meaning, grammar and discourse—what, collectively, underlies comprehension—seem to be fully operational, but their activity is blocked by the deficit in the lower-order function of phonological processing.”

“The phonological model crystallizes exactly what we mean by dyslexia: an encapsulated deficit often surrounded by significant strengths in reasoning, problem solving, concept formation, critical thinking and vocabulary.

“It is true that when details are not unified by associated ideas or theoretical frameworks—when, for example, Gregory must commit to memory long lists of unfamiliar names—dyslexics can be at a real disadvantage. Even if Gregory succeeds in memorizing such lists, he has trouble producing the names on demand, as he must when he is questioned on rounds by an attending physician. The phonological model predicts, and experimentation has shown, that rote memorization and rapid word retrieval are particularly difficult for dyslexics.


I’m worried. Are our dyslexic students struggling in math because they are being taught through memorized procedures, rote memorization of facts, and without connecting math strategies to conceptual frameworks?


That is my theory.


I have worked with enough teachers and parents to know that there are 2 major issues at hand here:


1. We are teaching the way we were taught.

Most of us were taught to memorize times tables, memorize the standard algorithms, memorize the steps of long division.


Most of us were not given opportunities to problem solve, figure out strategies on our own, or put math into context.


Many teachers are still teaching this way.


2. We are focusing on deficits instead of strengths.


Students with IEPs are often provided remedial help.  If she doesn’t have facts memorized, she’ll have help memorizing them. If she can’t keep a procedure straight, she’ll get extra practice doing it over and over again.


This all seems like common sense. But teachers are missing so many opportunities to allow her to internalize higher level math concepts through her strengths: visual spatial strengths, reasoning strengths, conversational strengths, and, critically, the ability to form conceptual frameworks.


She is being pulled aside and being held back.


So what can a teacher do?


Teachers can help students with dyslexia use their strengths to overcome their challenges. Math is actually the perfect subject for this.


Through hands-on experiences and rich math discussion, students with dyslexia can reach and exceed grade level expectations of math concepts.


inclusive classroom teaching math strategies for elementary teachers and students


Teachers can encourage students to figure out how to solve math problems on their own, suggesting that they use math strategies they are already comfortable with. For example, holding back on showing a more efficient strategy, and allowing kids to use repeated addition, blocks, or some other well understood strategy to solve newly introduced large multiplication problems. Is this time consuming? Yes? Does this allow for seamless understanding? Yes.


hands-on math for students with dyslexia


Teachers can offer activities that require students to practice math in context. For example, ask students to work together to solve a complex word problem that is realistic. The word problem should be written and read aloud several times – as many times as needed – throughout the activity.


Stolen pendant elementary math STEAM activity


Teachers can ensure that conceptual understanding becomes solid by providing time EVERYDAY for students to share strategies they used, and discuss similarities, differences, and patterns among their classmates’ work.


reflection questions for elementary math teachers


Teachers can create activities in which students must use several models to represent the same math problem. This helps all students see the connections between visual models, written equations, and physical models.



inclusive classroom teaching math strategies for elementary teachers and students

There are so many things we can do to serve our students with dyslexia. And guess what? All of these instructional practices benefit EVERY STUDENT!

What other ideas do you have for meeting the needs of every child?


improve math education at elementary schools

2 thoughts on “Why Do Students With Dyslexia Struggle With Math?

  1. I loved your article. My research is in the area of cultivating mathematical images through the use of spatial reasoning for all students, but my background in this field is connected to dyslexia. I am dyslexic and both my kids are also. Your mention of rote memorization is spot on. I am currently working in a school for students with “learning disabilities” or what I like to call non-typical learners trying to elevate the status of these students in the area of mathematics, as I also feel they have great mind organization for the subject.

    1. Thank you! Your work sounds fascinating! I truly believe that many students with dyslexia have just the skills struggling students without dyslexia could use!

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