Mathematics and Dyslexia Part I

What do we know about teaching meaningful mathematics to students with learning disabilities, particularly those with profound difficulties learning to read, otherwise known as dyslexia?

Here is a great place to start: a blog post by a mathematician with dyslexia who lists some of the many strengths of people with dyslexia. Here is a quote from the blog:

As I said before, dyslexia comes not only with weaknesses, but with strengths*. Some of these strengths play well into mathematical thinking, such as:

  • Spatial reasoning. Dyslexics tend to be good at thinking relationally in three dimensions. This is great for many areas of math. Topology is one of those. My PhD is in topology.
  • Seeing connections. Progress in mathematical research is made by drawing connections between disparate subfields. Dyslexics often have a strength here also.
  • Thinking in narratives. The way to predict how well a child will do in math is by how complicated a story they can tell. See this ScienceNews article. It makes sense: proofs are the bread-and-butter of math. Proofs are really a lot like stories. Dyslexics are usually good narrative thinkers.

I really didn’t like math at all up until I hit geometry in ninth grade. That’s when math became much easier for me. It may be confusing that moving into more advanced mathematics actually made math easier for me. The key to remember is that my brain works differently from the brains that school curricula were designed for.

Book cover of The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock and Fernette Eide. Image of eggs, all white with one yellow in the center.

*I’m stealing this list of strengths from The Dyslexic Advantage by Eide and Eide.

This epitomizes the concept of neurodiversity, focused on strengths rather than deficits, looking for evidence in the experience of experts, people with disabilities. It is hard to recognize how very ill-suited traditional mathematics education has been for people with dyslexia. For example, I hear frequently about difficulties with retaining memorized facts or procedures. When a child has difficulty in this area, all instruction stops until they are “remediated,” or fixed. The assumption is that you cannot move on unless the facts are mastered. This assumption is dangerous because the student has no access to higher level mathematics, no access to the meaning making of mathematics that might finally connect for that student. No wonder that kids with learning disabilities tend to stall out at about a 5th grade level.

In this post from the website the Dyslexic Advantage, Fernette Eide writes about the four core cognitive advantages demonstrated by dyslexic learners. How does these four strengths matter for learning mathematics?

The Four MIND-Strengths

In our book The Dyslexic Adshutterstock_133874900vantage (2011) we described the results of this investigation, and the four patterns of dyslexia-associated strengths it revealed. With a little tweaking, we used the acronym MIND-Strengths to describe these strength patterns, which are:

M-Strength for Material Reasoning, which is primarily reasoning about the position, form, and movement of objects 3D space

I-Strengths for Interconnected Reasoning, which is primarily the ability to spot, understand, and reason about connections and relationships (e.g., analogies, metaphors, systems, patterns)

N-Strengths for Narrative Reasoning, which is primarily the ability to reason using fragments of memory formed from past personal experience (i.e., using cases, examples, and simulations rather than abstract reasoning from principles)

D-Strengths for Dynamic Reasoning, which is the ability to accurately predict using patterns derived through experience the future or the unwitnessed past

Building on the blog post above, what might these strengths mean in mathematics? How can we leverage these strengths?

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