Dyslexia or something else?

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.

Hi Jonah,

Last Wednesday [my son] told me he failed his fractions quiz. I asked him to review with his teacher before talking to you and he is being told by his teachers that he is “reading too fast” or that he is just not trying. And even last night he told me he was “dumb” and could not learn it.

I think it is a reading problem. His dyslexia often prevents him from understanding word problems and he usually gets those wrong, even if he gets the other questions right. He also does it with Spanish and Science concepts that are new and words he cannot put into context. 

What do you recommend for him to improve his performance on these word problems? His next quiz is next week and […]

Jen K.

Hi Jen, 

Thanks for filling me in. Now that we’ve had a chance to review the quiz, I have a few thoughts.

[Your son] also seems to think that the questions he missed on the quiz were due to reading errors, but I’m not so sure. His verbal skills are good, and he understood the instructions of the question very clearly. If his dyslexia was affecting his understanding of the problem, then we’d see more questions where he found the answer to a question the teacher wasn’t asking–like he’d misunderstood the question.

(By the way, I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of dyslexia as “preventing” him from understanding anything. It can slow him down and make certain questions harder, but he can definitely do it! I am trying to encourage him to think in this way instead of believing his dyslexia is stopping him from succeeding at any thing – perhaps we can work together on this?)

Instead, there was a breakdown between the written words on the page and the symbols he need to translate them into in order to solve the problem (for example, when reading “find the percent increase between week 2 and week 4”, he instead found the increase between week 4 and week 2–but not because he mixed up the order of the numbers on the page, since that did occur to me and I checked–but because he misapplied or misunderstood the formula he learned for finding percents).

So it’s not that he’s misunderstanding the question, but that he’s misapplying his math skills, or that he’s applying them in the wrong places.

This is unfortunately the hardest aspect of the problems to fix (the three aspects being interpreting the question, applying the math skill, and completing the calculation–in fact, his calculations are quite good, and pretty fast). Today we addressed the quiz by putting a band-aid on the problem: I gave him a list of words he’ll see in word problems and the associated math skill (for example, when you see “percent increase”, you make a fraction with the bigger number on top). This type of direct instruction raises grades pretty fast, but it doesn’t build a deeper understanding of the material. To do that, he’ll need to examine the math concepts he already knows and fit them into an ongoing and developing framework of math as he learns more.

Unfortunately, this type of problem is very often misinterpreted as the result of dyslexia. Students who have worked hard on their language skills can be discouraged by difficult word problems, and might believe they just won’t ever be good at them.
But I don’t think that’s the case. In this case, it’s not the language skills that are causing the problem, but math fluency instead–[your son] is having trouble identifying when he should use the different techniques he’s learned. This happens most often on word problems, since that’s when the context for using math skills is muddiest (there’s no clear instructions, usually). The end result looks similar to a language processing issue, but the cause is different.
That means we can’t address it just by drilling word problems. Instead, we need to give [your son] explicit directions about when different math techniques should be used and ways to recognize the proper context. Once he gets the hang of this, he’ll be able to tackle those word problems with confidence and ease, since he knows exactly which tools to use and how to use them.
– jonah

We were able to get the child we’re discussing above a passing grade on his next quiz and an A for the semester (with a high score on the fractions part of the test), in part because we took time to review basics and context.

He developed much more of an appetite for math after that, which is something I see often. Kids don’t like doing things they think they’re no good at, but once they taste success, they decide math isn’t so bad after all.

The problem recognizing proper context in math word problems is very common in autistic students. That’s not the case with the student from above, but many parents of autistic kids will recognize their own children in the description, I think.