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.

Grapefruit Grammar

A couple of weeks ago I was teaching a lesson on adjectives, in preparation for the children writing a poem later in the week. The plan I’d been given said “have a selection of different coloured items at the front of the classroom and get the children to describe them.”

First item up was a grapefruit. Now the children in this class are all EAL, and having just come back from a long summer holiday, none of them have been using English for several weeks, so this task was difficult. After pair talk and group discussion, they had come up with…… “yellow”! There the word sat, all alone in the middle of the board.

I managed to get them to add a few more to it by giving them choices: Does it feel rough or smooth? Is it heavy or light? Hard or soft? Warm or cold? “Yellow” was slightly less alone on the board, but we still weren’t awash with ideas.

In desperation I asked the TA if she could find a knife, and we cut the grapefruit into chunks and handed it round. Luckily it was a small class so everybody had a bit.

Suddenly the classroom was exploding with ideas. “Oooh, this is sour,” said one child screwing his face up.

“I like it – it’s juicy!” said another.

“It’s wet inside. I thought it would be dry.”

“It’s delicious.”

“My mouth feels funny – it’s all tingly.”

“Please can I wash my hands, Miss? They’re sticky.”

The board filled up really quickly – in fact I ran out of space – which just goes to prove that well-known rule. If you want to inspire children, bring food into your lessons.



Finger Tables

I learnt this way of working out those tricky 6x 7x and 8x tables at a course a while back. I found it extremely complicated and far harder than just learning the tables – in fact I was the one at the back of the classroom looking puzzled, shaking  head and saying, “I just don’t get it.”  It gave me a real insight into how children must feel at school on occasions!

Anyway, I finally did pick it up, and although I’m not keen on it myself, the rest of the participants loved it. Some even said that they had already used it with some success, so I’m going to share it with you.

The first thing you need to do is give all your fingers a value from 6 (thumbs) to 10 (little fingers).

hands numbered for finger tables

Then you touch together the fingers with the numbers you want to multiply, so 8×8 is done  like this.

finger tables 8 x 8

finger tables 8 x 8So far, so good.  Then comes the bit I don’t like.  All the fingers now change values. The ones from the thumbs to those that are touching become 10s, so here I have 6 fingers (the two which are touching, two index fingers and two thumbs) which become 10s.    6 x 10 = 60.

Then I see how many fingers I have left on each hand – in this case two (ring finger and little finger) and I multiply them by each other: 2 x 2 = 4.

Finally, I add those two answers together.  60 + 4 = 64, so 8 x 8 = 64.

Here’s one more example. 7 x 9 = ?

finger tables 7 x 9I touch the two fingers together, and then give all my fingers from these to my thumbs a value of 10.  That’s 6 fingers, and 6 x 10 = 60.

Then I see how many fingers are left on each hand. I have  1 on my left hand (little finger), and 3 on my right hand middle finger, ring finger and little finger) and I multiply these  together:  1 x 3 = 3. I add the two answers together :  60 + 3 = 63 so 7 x 9 = 63.

It works, but I find it convoluted.  I much prefer to help children learn their tables by heart, using multisensory methods, and you will find my suggestions how to do that here.

What do you think? If any of you have used this method, or try it out after reading this post, I’d love to hear how you got on.

For maths and English tutoring in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall areas, visit www.sjbteaching.com. For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

A MultiSensory Approach to Spelling

A friend of mine asked me for help because her daughter was struggling to learn her spellings. She was trying hard each week, but only getting 1 or 2 out of 10 in her spelling tests, and it was really upsetting her.

The recommended method for learning spellings is Look Cover Write Check (First of all look at the word really carefully. Notice the shape of it – how many letters have ascenders (sticks going up like in b and h) or descenders (sticks going down like in g and p). Notice which letters make each sound (is it ee ea or ie). Close your eyes and try to see the word in your head. Now cover the word and then write it. Check it to see if you got it right) and for most children this works. However some children need to learn spellings in a different way, and my friend’s daughter was one of these.

The first thing I did was to move the spellings away from the paper. We used magnetic letters to put her words on the fridge and then we were able to move the letters in the words further away from each other and closer together to look for patterns. By doing this, we were able to see groups of letters that were the same in all of the words, double letters, and words within words (eg together is to get her).

We then practised the spellings using different media, such as scrabble tiles, different coloured chalks on paving slabs, finger paints on different coloured paper, and water squeezed out of a bottle.

We also used an alternative to Look Cover Write Check which I picked up from a trainer on a training course run by the British Dyslexia Association: Watch Trace Copy Write Check. First she watched me write the word in cursive (joined up) writing, then she traced over it, feeling how the word flowed from the pen. Cursive writing is important as it in brings in muscle-memory. As she traced the word she said it aloud, sounding out the letters. This made it a multisensory experience because it combined seeing, hearing and doing. After this she copied the word, again saying it aloud and using cursive writing. After copying the word a few times, she covered it and wrote it from memory, still saying it aloud and sounding each letter as she wrote it. Finally she checked the word to see if she had written it correctly. Another tip I picked up on the BDA course was to tick each letter in the word that is correct, even if the word as a whole is wrong. This helps to reinforce all the parts of the word that are right, before going back to Watch Trace Copy Write and Check.

We colour-coded long vowel sounds to help visualise which groups of letters make a sound. For example we wrote
ee in green: green, keen, feed, sheet, between
ea in red: mean, clean, dream, bead
ey in blue: donkey, monkey, abbey, chimney
ie in yellow: chief, relief, believe, achievement
and grouped all the same coloured words together. This meant that when she tried to picture the word in her head to write it down, the colour would stand out and help her remember which two letters she needed. It also helped us to find patterns and rules. For example we found that the sound at the beginning of a word was usually made with ea: eager, each, easy, whereas ey came at the end of the word.

Another visualisation technique we used for particularly tricky words, was to throw the word at the wall. She looked at the word on paper, noting patterns of letters etc, and then ‘picked up’ the word from the page and ‘threw’ it at the wall opposite. From then on, every time she struggled with that word she would look at the wall and still see it there. I have heard of a similar technique from a dyslexia trainer who suggested writing the word on a piece of paper and sticking it on the wall in the corner towards the ceiling. To begin with the children copied the word from here. Interestingly, even after the paper was removed, the children would still look towards that spot when trying to spell the word, and they would write it correctly.

As we all know, English isn’t a language that follows rigid rules without exceptions, and some words do have some downright awful spellings. Mnemonics can be a useful tool to aid memory (for example SAID: It’s an ‘a’ and an ‘i’, And I don’t know why) but children need to be encouraged not to rely too heavily on these. If they use them, they need to be reminded to go back to the word when they have written it, and make sure it looks right. I have seen so many posters in so many classrooms exclaiming that Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants, and I have seen so many children write the word as ‘becaule’ because they mentally substitute ‘little’ for ‘small’. If they looked at the word again they would see that the ‘l’ didn’t make sense

My friend’s daughter stopped getting 1 or 2 out of 10 and started getting 9 or 10 out of 10. She still finds spelling difficult, maybe she always will, but she has improved – a lot. Her teachers now give her praise for the amount of effort she puts in. She has strategies now to help her spell words. Spellings homework has stopped being a time for battling with nonsensical groups of letters and of tears of frustration, and started being a time for having fun with words.  She’s a lot happier and more relaxed about writing these days. And that’s why I really love my job.

For maths or English tuition in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall area visit www.sjbteaching.com.  For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

Related post: A Multisensory Approach to Reading  Teaching the Times Tables