Dyslexia: Mastering Math

Dyslexia Mastering Math

I am often asked how to teach dyslexic kids math facts so that they stick.

Although the term ‘dyslexia’ refers to an inability to read (dis = poor or inadequate and  lexia = words or language), it effects other areas of study as well.

Math is an interesting subject in that it requires conceptual, logical and spatial reasoning – all areas in which the dyslexic, right-brained thinker excels.  Math also requires neatness, exactness and efficient computation skills – areas in which the dyslexic, right-brained thinker struggles.

Conceptually, these kids understand math which is a good thing.  One of the hallmark signs of dyslexia is an above-average intelligence with an accompanying {and perplexing} struggle to learn certain subjects.  Rote memorization of math facts is one of these areas.  I have good news!  Just as with mastering reading, our kids can master their math facts by tapping into their highly visual brains and using some creative methods geared for their unique style of learning.  They can also learn how to organize their thinking and their written work so that longer computations don’t become half day marathon of tears and frustration.

Teaching Math Concepts

Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, fractions and decimals.  These mathematical concepts require a certain amount of mature reasoning to understand.  When teaching a kindergartener to understand the concept of numbers, we start by linking the concept to something real.   As he begins to learn to count by touching and manipulating objects, the concept of numbers, their symbols and their meaning become clear, or concrete.

So with the older child, getting their hands on objects so that they can understand math concepts is critical for building the understanding of why that is so important in the right-brained child’s learning style.  One of the best curriculums for teaching math to a dyslexic, visual learner is Math-U-See.  From adding and subtracting to fractions and decimals, the program comes with manipulatives that illustrate the concept being learned.  By building the problem with the manipulatives, saying the equation and then writing the problem, the student is using three modes of learning;  kinesthetic, auditory and visual.  The strategy in our home has always been that the child builds the problem with the manipulatives every time until the concept becomes clear and they are no longer needed.  This takes longer for some kids than for others.  No big deal – it is how they learn.

Mastering Math Facts

This leads me to the question you all have been waiting for… how to get those math facts to stick?!

We all remember those timed math fact tests with a sheet of tiny math problems that we were to solve them as fast as we could – proving our level of mastery.  Torture for a dyslexic learner.

Why?  Because the dyslexic brain struggles with low working memory.  If you have taught a dyslexic child for any length of time, you know what I am talking about.  You teach the concept one day.  They seem to have a pretty good handle on it.  You revisit the same concept the next day and it is as if you are teaching it for the first time!  What?  How can you not remember?  We have been over this – insert some exaggeratedly large number here – times!  Rote memorization is not a strength of the dyslexic mind.  So how do we help them master their math facts?

Tap into visual strengths

Use manipulatives, even everyday items or a packaged curriculum like Math U See and get your kids touching and experiencing math.  Let your kids see the patterns of skip counting by 2s, 5s, 10s by building with math blocks or shading a 100s chart.  Let them touch and experience math concepts.  Once they understand the why, the rest will fall into place.   A quick online search will yeild lots of hands-on math ideas.  Another visual strategy is using images for remembering math facts.  Citycreek has a set of over-sized flash cards for both addition and multiplication that teaches the math facts using pictures, stories and songs.  Perfect for the highly visual learner.

Talk through word problems

Teach your child to read word problems {quietly} out loud to utilize both auditory and visual memory.  Teach them to find the important numbers and write them down.  Visualize the actual question at hand.  Reason out loud what the problem asks for and which steps to take to achieve the needed result. Using this methods helps develop vocabulary, organizational skills and spoken and written communication – all keys to successful education.

Graph paper for long division

Having trouble lining up those columns?  Have your child write them on graph paper, one number per box.  Instant columns!

Use music or songs

All of my junior high and high school students have developed compensation skills for being able to access math facts during longer computations.  One of the {surprisingly} most used methods they used was one that they learned in 1st and 2nd grades.  Skip counting.  They initially learned these by listening to a very cute skip counting CD put out by Math U See.  Though they have mastered most of their facts by 8th grade {long division will force them!} they can always access that auditory memory of skip counting to find an answer.  On a side note:  we have learned many facts from other subjects through song.  Geography, science, grammar and history are just a few examples. 

Writing out steps of different math processes

Because dyslexic kids have trouble remembering directions and learning sequences, write the steps down and have them handy while the child works on the problem.  For example, as division becomes more and more complex, have the child write out the steps:

1.  Divide

2.  Mulitply

3.  Subtract

4. Bring next number down


Applying a mnemonic to the process can help your child step away from the notes. Taking the first letter from each step, have the child come up with their own unique mnemonic:  Dad Mom Sister Brother, or how about Dead Monkeys Smell Bad?  The weirder the better – for memory purposes,  at least!

I had one child who could solve fairly complicated Algebra problems in his head.  He struggled with writing the traditional steps on his paper because those steps were not the steps that he was taking to figure things out in his head.  I eventually allowed him to solve equations in his head and only forced him to work them out if he got them wrong.  No situation is the same.  Know your child and don’t be afraid to think out side the box!

What about when they haven’t mastered their math facts and their curriculum is moving ahead anyway?

This is highly anecdotal without any research to back it up except for my own family of dyslexic learners.  In our homeschool, we are mastery based.  No one moves on unless they have mastered the material.  However, if a child conceptually understands the math problem but struggles {it takes them waaaaay too long to complete the daily assignment} because of slow computational skills, I give them a chart of the math facts, let them look at it and get on with that long division!  Cheating, you say?  If a child in our home does not know their math facts well, they have to choose one method of practice each day and practice them for 10 -15 minutes until they no longer need the ‘cheat sheet’.

Resources for teaching math to a highly visual, dyslexic learner

Finally, before this post becomes an Ultimate Listhere are some resources that we recommend:

Math U See 

Math curriculum for K-12.  Teaches the ‘why’ of math using manipulatives.

City Creek

Addition and Multiplication facts memory aid in the form of over-sized flash cards with humorous stories and images to aid with memory.

Math It

Hands-on teaching tool that teaches strategies for figuring out math facts.

Sing ‘n Learn

Web site full of audio resources for use in all subjects.

Helpful Web Sites:

Dianne Craft

Dianne Craft has lots of ideas and suggestions for teaching right-brain learners.

Chris Woodin – Landmark School

Chris Woodin has a lot of hands on ideas for understanding math concepts.  Lots of information on math and the right brain learner.

Donna Young

Lots of free, printable math sheets.

Kahn Academy

Millions, yes millions, of educational videos on every subject from Math and Science to Computer Science and Test Prep.  Excellent resource for when kids don’t get it.

Learn More!

If you are interested in getting educated about dyslexia and how to educate, encourage and empower your kids with dyslexia, you have come to the right place.

For more information on specific strategies to teach your dyslexic child the way he or she learns, consider taking one of our Parent Dyslexia Classes.  Classes now available are:

Understanding Dyslexia

Teaching Them How They Learn

Teaching Reading:  Methods That Work

Teaching Spelling

Building Fluency and Comprehension

Or buy all 5 classes in our Foundation Bundle and receive a free download of my book, Dyslexia 101:  Truths, Myths and What Really Works.  Visit our Parent Dyslexia Class page for more information.

15 replies
  1. HomeschoolFam
    HomeschoolFam says:

    For multiplication facts, times tables there are several nice programs that use visual methods, stories or rhymes. Not all do full 0-12 tables though. See what matches your needs for your family.
    Times Tales
    Times Tables the Fun Way
    Vaughn Cube
    All around $20-30 I believe.
    There is also a neat (and much cheaper solution than those above, 0.99 cents I believe) app in the iOS app store that uses cartoons and tricks to teach 0-12 tables. Funtimes tables! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/funtimes-tables!-fun-times/id944109275?mt=8 (I give the link because some similar name apps in app store, but very different)

    A nice feature of the app is that it you can see a summary page of how your child is doing and it customizes review based on what they need more review on. That alone is worth it and you can skip the memorizing techniques if your child just needs drilling practice.

    Just some suggestions, all very good options.

  2. Kelly Miller
    Kelly Miller says:

    Students with dyslexia did not like and tried hard to avoid learning formulae. This may have arisen from a sense of insecurity about ‘remembered’ facts but when coupled with the difficulties they experienced using formulae sheets represented an additional difficulty for them.

  3. Siew Yean
    Siew Yean says:

    Thank you for sharing. This is very helpful not only for teaching dyslexia child math but also applicable for most children. I strongly believe in turning math abstract concept into concrete and let kid visualize it. At home, we use Singapore Math which adopt Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract Approach. It has proven to be effective in helping my children to lay a strong foundation in math concept. I have some worksheets available here http://www.kids-activities-learning-games.com/kids-math-worksheets.html

  4. Susan
    Susan says:


    I happened to find your site, and I totally agree with you when you write that children must master math facts. I did develop a math facts program which was published under another publisher in 1999, but since then, I have published workbooks with strategies and practice pages so that all children, regardless of age, can learn to recall math facts. I provide free tips on how to teach math facts, and advise that educators give their children more advanced math (new lessons) using math facts that ARE known. So when teaching a new math skill, such as the long division you mention, if a student only knows some math facts, problems can be set up using those math facts so that there won’t be any counting on fingers, or relying on charts to get answers.

  5. Ethan
    Ethan says:

    Hi there! I’m a college student about to graduate with a degree in Computer Science. I’m also highly dyslexic.

    I’ve been having huge issues with mathematics all my life, and reading your article really clicked with me. Every single one of those things you mentioned is true to my learning style even in my early twenties. I can’t stand formulae or rote memorization, and I am still terrible with directions and multistep sequences. Despite that, My logic skills and spatial thinking is quite decent, which is why I really enjoy programming. I hate classes that only teach me steps and numbers! I need to know the WHY immediately, or else I simply can’t follow along with lectures.

    One thing that I’d like to suggest is using lots of colors with your kids’ math assignments. Numbers and mathematical symbols can quickly become a huge jumble for dyslexic students, especially when they are all the same color! Color-coding symbols has worked wonders for me when I make study guides and stuff.

    All the best,

  6. EB
    EB says:

    Hello – found your post thought I might add my two cents being dyslexic (I work in computer DMS systems) and being a parent to two dyslexic students. (Oh, and my Dad is a chem-engineer with dyslexia. He invented lots of cool things you all use everyday.)

    – Keep the skill of learning math facts separate from learning to do math. (They are not the same in a dyslexic mind.) Math facts to a dyslexic is symbol X symbol = symbol. It can turn into trying to get the symbols correct not understanding the visual attributes of mathematics. (True story, I never learned my math facts, neither did my Dad. I can only get my phone number correct because I know what it looks like on a phone… Einstein never learned his phone number and back then phone numbers are only 5 numbers long…) I got a perfect score on my ACT calculus section twice and in college was given a scholarship in mathematics all that and never got past learning my 3’s..

    – When doing higher math, like pre-algebra, use a calculator. (Remember keep math fact mastery and doing math as two separate skills, never work on them together.) When doing algebra, the skill is organization and sequencing. (Remember, sequencing is what we as dyslexic’s struggle with most!)

    (And a special thank you to all the parents out there who are reading this and pulling for their kids. Mine never gave up on me and my mom poured so much time and energy into helping me. I was diagnosed back in 1980 when most people thought it was a made up condition. She never gave up.To all the parents who don’t give up on us kids – THANK YOU.)

  7. Carlie
    Carlie says:

    Please do add RightStart Math to your list of homeschool curriculum for math. For our family, it has been a godsend. I wish I could tell every parent of dyslexic children about it.
    When I pulled my profoundly dyslexic daughter from public school in the middle of her 2nd grade year, she did not have any number sense. She did not know the difference between 13, 15, or 50. They were all confusing symbols, void of meaning, to her. Adding and subtracting made no sense to her and she would only guess at answers. She certainly couldn’t write numbers legibly or in the correct order, let alone write equations. She cried at even the thought of math. She protested that she could never, ever learn it. Then I started her on the RightStart program. Honestly, within a couple of months, my daughter realized that not only could she do math, but she was kinda good at it! And she really, truly understood the concepts. All this, without having to write much at all. And now, a year later, she is happily writing answers on worksheets with confidence. This program is very hands-on, very multi-sensory, step-by-step, comprehensive, and I honestly cannot imagine how I could have ever taught her math without it. The manipulatives are fantastic and I have relied on them time and again to solidify understanding and skills. I have the 2nd edition and it is very easy to teach on the go, with no prep required.

    The only drawbacks to this program are that it is a little pricey to buy the required manipulatives kit ( though VERY worthwhile, in my opinion) and that in the lower levels, the program must be taught directly by teacher/parent, so it can be time-consuming (again, I think it’s worth your time because you need to be actively involved in a struggling learner’s math program anyway.) Truly, it is the best investment of time and money that we have made on any homeschool curriculum. I now use it for all 3 of my children, and we are all successfully learning and improving our math skills – even me!

    • Marianne
      Marianne says:

      Thank you Carlie for such a thorough and informative review of Right Start Math! I’ll definitely add it to the resources page. 🙂

  8. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    My son could not remember times tables at all until we found a cd with skip counting songs. Even now in 7 th grade I hear him singing the songs under his breath! Another math program, that has worked amazingly for him, is called TouchMath. For some reason it made perfect sense to him, even better than using blocks or manipulatives. It goes all the way thru pre albebra so far.


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