Teaching Math Word Problems to Students with Dyscalculia

Instructor: Elizabeth Diehl

Elizabeth studied to be a special education teacher at Regis University, and received her masters in 2014.

For students with dyscalculia especially, the combination of reading a paragraph and applying mathematical skills to solve a problem is difficult. However, teaching students with dyscalculia to successfully solve word problems is not impossible.

Understanding Dyscalculia

It is important to understand what dyscalculia is and what it is not, in order to understand where the problem lies for affected students. People do not outgrow learning disabilities, but they can learn to work through them and lead successful lives. Dyscalculia is a learning disability that directly affects how a student understands math concepts and numbers. While someone might immediately think of a student who struggles to understand basic arithmetic facts, other aspects of mathematical and logical skills can be affected, such as learning how to read an analog clock, or being able to understand fractions.

For most students with dyscalculia, reading the word problem itself is not always the problem. The difficulty lies more in being able to understand what it being asked in the word problem and how to apply what they know. Here are some ways you can help your students connect to word problems.

All students can succeed at word problems.
student studying math

Deciding on & Implementing Strategies

Meet With Your Student

If a student has a diagnosis for dyscalculia, he or she should have an individualized educational program (IEP) to personalize instruction for this learning challenge. The IEP can help to clarify areas of difficulty, such as telling time, and strengths.

After reviewing the IEP, find time to meet with your student and ask how she feels about word problems. For many students, word problems are a big source of anxiety. Work with your student to create an action plan that may include asking for help or using reference tools she has at her desk. As word problems are frequently found at the bottom of a worksheet, ask the student to tackle them first instead of last, when she may be mentally tired.

Meeting with a student can help to remind him or her to use the resources at hand. It can also help to emphasize your availability as an ally.

Be A Detective

When reviewing a student's work, pay attention to more than just right or wrong answers. Did he catch the pattern? Did he labor on the solution for a long time? Did he know the correct operation to use, but missed a detail, such as carrying the '1', that affected his answer?

Often, students with dyscalculia understand the mathematical process but miss the details that make their answers incorrect. If you can pick up on these patterns, it will help you give appropriate feedback to your students.

Instruct Students in Vocabulary

Many students of all abilities struggle to identify what a word problem is asking them. Review with your class what terms, such as 'how many altogether', signify in the story. Consider making a reference chart for the classroom, adding new examples throughout the school year. Make personal copies for students to keep with them when they complete their homework.

Break Down Operational Steps

Help students with dyscalculia process what they need to do by breaking down the operational steps and questions found in word problems. Practice and review what they will need to do and how they might know what is being asked. Follow the steps when you model and introduce new skills in the classroom.

Refer to the steps when you meet with your students with dyscalculia to help them know where to start the next time they work on a word problem. For example, for a word problem that wants the student to multiply two-digit numbers together, practice identifying the essential information, setting up the digits problem, and then going through the process of multiplying the digits and finding the product. Consider color-coding your example to demonstrate how the numbers combine in the answer.

Help Students Find the Clues

Sometimes, word problems include extra information that does not necessarily relate to the solution. Before giving a math assignment to a student with dyscalculia, highlight the key clues in the word problem. As the student gains confidence, reduce the amount of highlighting, and encourage your student to highlight the key clues herself.

Sometimes a student with dyscalculia may want to talk through a word problem. She might have questions and need some information clarified before attempting to solve it. Encourage your students with dyscalculia to ask these questions - they are a great way for you to better guide them towards finding the solution and can help to clear up a wrong answer before it happens.

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