Teaching sequencing and column addition to a child with dyscalculia

Recently a colleague asked me for some suggestions to help one of his pupils with her maths. She was having various problems, such as

  • Difficulty with sequencing numbers
  • Getting confused as to which way to move on a number-line to add or subtract single digits
  • Getting confused as to which way to move on a number-square to add or subtract multiples of 10
  • Not understanding whether an answer she got when performing a calculation was “reasonable” or way off
  • Confusing the Hundreds Tens and Units columns and so not always starting in the correct place when performing calculations.

He suspected that the child in question might have dyslexia and / or dyscalculia, and if that is the case then I can understand why they might have trouble with column addition/subtraction. They’ll be concentrating really hard on left to right, left to right for their writing, and then suddenly column calculations go right to left – no wonder they get confused!

My advice was to make the learning experience completely multi-sensory, even if it meant taking the learning outside.   These were some of my suggestions:

  • Make a physical number line on the floor/front driveway/back garden/anywhere with plenty of space. Place one object with the label “1”, then two objects labelled “2”, three objects and a label 3 and so on to help her equate the number 3 with the value 3
  • Chalk the numbers outside, and get her to walk along it counting forward, and then walk the other way counting backwards.  Get her to jump along it landing on every other number counting forwards in twos and then backwards in twos.
  • Move on to a number square in chalk so that they can change direction to add on/take away 10. This should also help with “reasonable” answers because, for example, she would come to understand that she had to walk further to add on 49 than to add on 12.
    • Always make the number square start with 1 at the bottom, rather than at the top like most number squares – then the higher numbers are at the top of the square and the lower numbers are at the bottom which also helps with understanding the value of numbers.
    • Use an abacus for additions/subtractions instead of written methods. I’ve done this with Y6 children who had no concept of place value and it made a huge difference!
  • When moving on to column addition and subtraction, colour-code the numbers in each column with a known sequence of colours (eg Red White and Blue so they do red units first, then white tens, then blue hundreds). Put the numbers either on coloured card – or even better use painted wooden numbers so she can pick them up and feel the shape of each number
  • People with dyslexia tend to think in pictures, so when finally moving onto pen and paper calculations, try putting pictures of Strictly Come Dancing / X-Factor judges at the top of each column. The judges always sit in the same order on the shows, so it’s easy to picture them sitting in a row – then you know that you always have to add Bruno Tonioli’s numbers first!

One final tip I picked up at a session on dyscalculia to help children with sequencing numbers was to give them something associated with each number so that they have something to relate that number to – seeing how the number matches the object and handling the objects while they count makes it more of a multi-sensory experience.  For example if you want them to count in 6s, rather than giving them something generic like pictures of 6 spots or sets of 6 cubes, give them egg-boxes.

Why MFL is good for children with SEN

A few days ago I read something that made me really angry. It was an article written by a parent about how the education system is letting her children down. At first I was sympathetic, and found myself nodding along with what she was saying. I agree that the education system isn’t perfect. I agree that sometimes, some children slip through the net and don’t get the help they need. But then she used the words that are guaranteed to infuriate me: “What’s the point in making them study French when they can’t even read and write English?”

It’s not the first time I’ve come across this attitude, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it makes me cross and it makes me sad. I’m an MFL specialist so maybe I’m biased, but I can see plenty of reasons not to withdraw children from MFL lessons – including and especially those with learning difficulties. Let me explain….

What do French, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch have in common? That’s right…they are all languages. So is English, so already we have identified something that English and whatever foreign language the child is studying have in common!

As languages, French, Spanish, German etc use grammar – just like English. And so here is my first reason for not withdrawing a child from their MFL lessons: in MFL we talk about grammar. We use words such as noun, verb, adjective, definite article, preposition….all the words the child is being taught in their English lessons are being reinforced in their MFL lesson. If they didn’t understand it first time, here is a golden opportunity to go over it again, in a different context. In MFL lessons we talk about the fact that verbs change their endings depending on who is doing them, and compare this to English “I look, you look” but “he looks”, so again there is more reinforcement of grammar. We talk about the different tenses and when to use them, and we look at how to structure a sentence and guess what…..we compare all this to English too. We look at similes and alliteration. We practise dictionary skills. In MFL, more than in probably any other lesson, we reinforce what they are learning in their English lessons.

It’s not just grammar that MFL helps with; it’s spelling too. In MFL lessons we look at spelling patterns and we talk about which ones are similar to English and which ones are completely different. More importantly, we think about how to remember the spellings of the words, and these techniques can be transferred to their English lessons.

It’s not just their English that benefits. When we learn how to count in a different language, or how to tell the time, we’re reinforcing their maths. When we look at countries where that language is spoken we are reinforcing their geography. The children study the culture of those countries (PSHE and RE), investigate the rhythm of language (music) and perform role plays (drama).

The other important thing about language – all languages – is that they are a means of communication. It isn’t just about reading and writing. Communication also involves speaking and listening, and we do plenty of that in MFL lessons. Just because a child struggles to spell, or to hold a pencil, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel at speaking, and just because a child finds speaking and listening difficult doesn’t mean they can’t do well with reading and writing. Last year I taught Spanish to a child who had several learning disabilities including dyslexia. He found writing difficult, but he really got the concept of adjective agreement and was able to show his understanding with the way he pronounced words when speaking, and he was really proud of his achievement. I’ve taught French to Deaf children because the school believed that they should have the same opportunities as hearing children. Some of them found it difficult, but some of them did really, really well with it. What a shame it would have been for those children if they’d been pulled out of language lessons because somebody decided it would be too hard for them.

My dream is for more people to take this attitude. To stop saying “What’s the point?” and to start saying “Why not?” Because maybe, just maybe, MFL could be the one subject the child excels at.

Addition 17-08-16
I came across this article recently, which gives a few more reasons: Why foreign languages have a place in autism education

Teaching Reading Comprehension

Of all the things I teach, I find reading comprehension the hardest. The retrieval type questions are OK, as are the technique ones, but teaching things like inference is quite tricky. I’ve found a workaround by teaching it from the opposite direction – giving the children a piece to read where the characters are shaking or crying and asking how they can tell the character is sad, scared, etc.

It’s really hard to find good resources to help though. There are books with lots of practise questions, but if you don’t know how to answer them then no matter how many questions you attempt, you still won’t be able to.

comprehension booksAt last I have found a solution. It’s a series of books called Teaching Comprehension Strategies from Prim-Ed. They take the various types of questions: summarising, predicting, concluding etc and explain step by step how to answer each type. Each question type is split into three stages. On the first page are some multiple choices with an explanation for each choice as to why that answer is good, unlikely, perfect or impossible. Next up are a few questions with hints on where to look and how to work out the answers. To finish are questions to answer independently with no clues.

As a bonus, the books aimed at younger readers are not at all babyish, so I can use them with my struggling readers without them feeling demotivated at reading things aimed at “babies”.

I’ve found them really useful, and the feedback I’ve had from the children I’ve used them with has been really positive, both in terms of usefulness and enjoyment.

Related post: Beast Quest Comprehension

How I Started Out

It took me a long time to start out in teaching. When I first graduated with my joint honours degree in French and Spanish, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The only thing I knew with any certainty was that I did not want to be a teacher! I worked as an editor for a financial institution in London for a while, and then spent 11 years as a project manager in the translation industry.

In my spare time I was learning ballroom and Latin American dancing, and my teacher suggested that I train to be a dance teacher myself. I wasn’t sure, but decided I had nothing to lose by trying so I gave it a go. I loved it! I qualified as a ballroom dance teacher in 1998 and as a Latin dance teacher in 2001. I never thought I would enjoy teaching so much, and I started to wonder whether I should go back to university to do a PGCE. I decided not to because I was still happy in the translation industry, and I was good at what I did.  As I got promoted to more senior roles within the industry, I took on more responsibility for training and mentoring new staff, and I enjoyed that too. We had new software installed company-wide. I was the first person to figure out how to use it,and  I ended up running a telephone helpdesk for other employees because they said my explanations were easier to understand than either the user guide or the tech guys. While I was writing a user-guide with screenshots and easy to understand English, I started to wonder again about teaching, and this time I got as far as researching courses at local universities. But still the time didn’t seem right. I was good at my job, which by now also involved travelling abroad, giving presentations and running workshops for some of the company’s most important clients. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be any good at teaching and so yet again I pushed the idea to the back of my mind.

Then something happened that made me realise life is too short to delay important decisions, and a few weeks after that I stumbled across an advert for a new PGCE where I could train in primary AND secondary education. That seemed like an interesting option, and so although I had missed the application deadline for that year I went along to the open day just to see what it was all about. Unbelievably they still had places left and so I applied, was accepted and started a year earlier than I thought I could. Training in both primary and secondary gave me a really good grounding across a whole range of ages, which has been useful since deciding to work as a supply teacher. I now love the fact that I can be having a tea-party in the sandpit in Nursery one day, and teaching languages at university the next. I love everything about my job, but the best part is helping children who are not reaching their full potential to succeed. These days I specialise not just in languages, but in maths and English tuition, and in multi-sensory teaching methods for tutoring children with dyslexia. Becoming a teacher and a private tutor is the best decision I have made.

A Disco in my Classroom

What do Black Lace and sentences have in common? Verbs, that’s what.

Teaching children how to use capital letters and full stops is not as easy as it sounds. Most of them already know that they go at the start and end of a sentence – the problem is that some of them don’t understand what a sentence is (see Why do they do that?).

A basic definition of a sentence is ‘a group of words that contain a verb and make sense on their own’. So far so good, but what if the children don’t understand what a verb is? That’s about where I was with my group, and that’s where Black Lace came in. We cancelled the English lesson, pushed the tables and chairs back and had a disco. We listened to Superman and joined in. We walked and we sneezed and we skied and we sprayed and we swam. And then we listed  all the actions from the song with illustrations for each one to makeverbs a display of verbs. By now the children were able to suggest other words that they thought might be verbs – all of them correct – and we added them to the display.

sentences and phrases Then we agreed that perhaps we should go back to the English lesson, so we sorted some groups of words into “Sentence” and “Not a sentence” by deciding whether or not they had verbs and whether or not they made sense. Now that they knew what verbs were they found this quite easy. Result!

Now that they knew what a sentence was, we were able to go back to the original LO of being able to use capital letters and full stops.