Dyslexia and Maths
Anne Mitchell, Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre
Published in speld (sa) Spring 2006 Newsletter


As we learn more about dyslexia, definitions change.

The following definition was adopted by the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) in 2005.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling, writing and sometimes numeracy. It is a persistent condition. Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short term memory, organization, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills. There may be difficulties with auditory and/or visual perception. It is particularly related to mastering and using written language, which may include alphabetic, numeric and musical notation.

Dyslexia can occur despite normal intellectual ability and teaching. It is constitutional in origin, part of one’s makeup and independent of socio-economic or language background.

Some learners have very well developed creative skills and interpersonal skills, others have strong oral skills. Some have no outstanding talents. All have strengths.

This article was first published in the Dyslexia Handbook 2006 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the British Dyslexia Association.

Using the BDA’s definition of dyslexia published in the 2005 Handbook, it’s easy to see how as many as 60% of dyslexic learners could have significant difficulties with maths (Joffe, L. 1980). The BDA definition describes how dyslexic learners have weaknesses in some or all of the following areas:

  • Speed of processing.
  • Short-term memory.
  • Visual and auditory perception.
  • Sequencing.
  • Spoken language.
  • Motor skills.
  • Mastering written language including numeric notation. 

All of these can have an effect on numeracy and maths skills (see the table below).

If we take Joffe’s figure of 60%, this means 40% of dyslexic learners do not have a maths difficulty! Many dyslexic learners are successful mathematicians and in future careers combine their creative talents and mathematical skills to become engineers and architects.

However, some successful adult dyslexic learners describe their earlier experiences of learning maths as being difficult. They often refer to learning tables and remembering methods of working as being troublesome. With the appropriate support they have been able to overcome these memory difficulties and develop the higher order maths skills necessary for success.

Area of Weakness Impact on Maths Learning
Speed of processing
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines and completing work.
  • Loses place in a process.
  • Inconsistent performance.
  • Can produce quality or quantity of work but not both.
  • Has slow speed of working.
  • Difficulty with problem solving.
Short term memory and sequencing
  • Difficulty learning and recalling number facts, formulae and subject specific vocabulary.
  • Forgets instructions and explanations.
  • Forgets equipment for lessons.
  • Forgets processes and methods of working.
  • Loses place in a sequence of operations.
  • Cannot get started.
Auditory and visual perception
  • Confuses similar sounding words e.g. forty, fourteen.
  • Transposes numbers e.g. 14 written as 41.
  • Substitutes and reverses letters, numbers, signs and symbols.
  • Loses place when reading questions.
  • Difficulty reading information from tables and graphs.
  • Difficulty copying accurately.
  • Cannot always perceive similarities and differences between shapes.
  • Forgets names and ‘labels’.
  • Confuses maths and everyday language e.g. in everyday language, ‘volume’ can mean noise level or a book but in maths it has a very specific meaning.
  • Cannot connect the subject specific vocabulary to a concept or to a formula.
  • Difficulty with word problems and understanding and interpreting questions in text books.
Motor skills
  • Poor presentation which can lead to inaccuracies in calculations.
  • Motor skills difficulty drawing graphs and shapes.

Supporting Dyslexic Learners in Maths

1. Identify the ‘Point of Breakdown’
Children need many skills to complete even simple calculations. For example, to correctly complete the sum 137 + 46, an individual would need to know: 
  • the procedure/process for working through the sum;
  • which is the most efficient method of working, e.g. re-writing in column format, or add 50 then take away 4;
  • about place value and partitioning;
  • what the symbol ‘+’ means;
  • how to count on (add);
  • how to write the numerals; and
  • how to write numbers such as 13 (dyslexic learners often transpose the digits in the teen numbers, e.g. 13 could be written as 31).
Because children need all these skills, each individual can fail to obtain the correct answer for different reasons. Consequently, a programme of support for an individual is likely to be different depending on where the point of breakdown is. Mahesh Sharma categorises maths knowledge into conceptual knowledge, linguistic knowledge and procedural knowledge. The skills and knowledge described above could be divided into these categories:
Conceptual knowledge
  • Counting.
  • Adding.
  • Place Value.
  • Sense of number, e.g. to round the 46 to 50. 
Linguistic knowledge
  • Add.
  • Hundreds, tens, units.
  • (+) means add or count on. 
Procedural knowledge
  • How to start.
  • Choosing a procedure.
  • Working through the procedure.
  • Writing numbers.

Of course, in practice, these are all linked, but it is a useful way of looking at the skills needed for each topic and where things are going wrong for a particular learner. Support can then focus on the individual needs of that learner; for example, two children, one who transposes the digits when writing the teen numbers and one who cannot remember the method of working, would need quite different programs of support.

2. Consider Appropriate Bypass Strategies

Dr Melvyn Levine suggests dividing a support programme into what he calls bypass strategies and direct intervention. Bypass strategies should be designed literally to enable learners to ‘bypass’ any difficulties they have.

The following table suggests some appropriate bypass strategies:


Area of Weakness Bypass Strategies
Speed of processing
  • Allow extra time.
  • Expect less work.
Short term memory and
  • Allow students to use a number square, table square, calculator.
  • Use memory cards the student can refer to for formulae, vocabulary and important information.
  • Provide model answers with each step in a sequence clearly set out.
  • Have a spare set of equipment
Auditory and visual perception
  • Have cards with number names and correctly written number e.g. fourteen = 14.
  • Enlarge graphs, tables and drawings.
  • Use coloured paper if appropriate.
  • Have someone read questions for the student.
  • Use memory cards with the vocabulary connected to the concept and to methods of working or formulae.
  • Provide a glossary of terms for each new topic area.
Motor skills
  • Allow learner to use squared paper.
  • Allow group working so that someone else can record the answer(s).
  • Allow the use of templates for drawing shapes.


3. Use a Multisensory Approach

Multisensory teaching works just as well for maths and numeracy as it does for improving literacy skills. One way of ensuring a multisensory approach is to use the sequence described by Pamela Liebeck. She explains how children develop abstract thought by progressing through a sequence.

First, children experience the maths with physical objects. Second, they use language to describe the experience. Next they use pictures to represent the experience, and finally use the symbols to generalize the experience.

For example, a lesson on recognizing equivalent fractions might begin with the experience of cutting pieces of card, pizzas, chocolate, cakes etc. into halves, quarters and eighths. The teacher and learner play a game exchanging pieces with each other e.g. swapping two quarters for one half. The teacher models the activity by demonstrating and explaining using the appropriate language such as:

  • exchange
  • equivalent
  • the same as
  • part
  • whole
  • half
  • quarter
  • out of

(e.g. I have one out of a possible four pieces which make up the whole). The learner copies and is encouraged to use the appropriate language to explain what he is doing.

The learner then draws pictures to illustrate the experience and activities. This also encourages learners to visualise and use their creative strengths. Finally, the correct symbols and notation for fractions can be used e.g. ½ = 2/4 = 4/8

Finally, Does Maths Really Matter?

The Skills for Life Survey published by the Department for Education and Skills in 2003 found that the connection between numeracy skills and earnings is more significant than the connection between literacy skills and earnings. Other research published by the Basic Skills Agency found that difficulties with numeracy impact more negatively on job prospects than literacy difficulties.

Maths certainly does matter. By supporting dyslexic learners who have maths difficulties we will be improving their life chances, earning potential and career opportunities.


  • Bynner, J and Parsons, S. (1997) Does Numeracy Matter? London: The Basic Skills Agency
  • DfES (2003) The Skills for Life Survey: A national needs and impact survey of literacy, numeracy, and ICT skills. Reserach brief RB490.
  • Joffe, L. (1980) 'Dyslexia and attainment in school mathematics'. Dyslexia Review, 3(1)
  • Levine. M (1994) Educational Care, Boston: Educators Publishing Services Inc.
  • Liebeck, P (1984) How Children Learn Mathematics: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. London: Penguin Books
  • Sharma, M. 1990 'Dyslexia, dyscalculia and some remedial perspectives for mathematics learning problems' Math Notebook, Volume 8, numbers 7, 8, 1 & 10

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