Is it a math problem?

math-languageI had an interesting conversation with a client regarding her daughter’s academic performance.  The teacher told her that her daughter reads well, but she struggles in math because she needs the math problems read to her in order to solve them.  This does not make sense.  If a student “needs” the math problems read and can understand what to do to solve the problem, clearly, the child has difficulty reading the words.  This is a decoding issue that needs to be addressed through reading instruction and intervention. The child can do the computation and has the mathematical vocabulary and understanding.  If the teacher reads the problem and the student still cannot understand the language of the word problem, this is just as often a vocabulary and language comprehension issue as a math deficiency.  Perhaps the student does not understand words that are needed to solve the problem such as twice, fewer, more than, equation, or parallel.  Sometimes, the technical words are understood, but the way the problem is phrased and how the question is asked present difficulties.  In either case, the child might have a conceptual understanding and know how to solve the problem, yet reading is the underlying cause of the math difficulties.


Why is this so confusing?  Solving a math problem requires multiple skills.  One needs to be able to read accurately, understand key words, interpret what is being asked, access working memory, and finally, be able to plan and solve, which can be a multi-step process.  It is not simply a computation question where the child just writes an answer.  Figuring out where the breakdown is occurring is the most important part of getting the right help.  All other subjects in school depend on reading.  If there are decoding and/or language comprehension difficulties, the child will probably struggle in other academic disciplines.


Many subjects in schools are taught in isolation.  There are blocks of time for teaching each, and it is usually disconnected from language arts.  It would be more effective if children were able to see the connection between word reading, spelling, vocabulary, and math.  For example, if children were taught that “fract” or “frag” means to break, they would probably remember the spelling of the words fraction and fragment, understand why fraction and fragment mean part of a whole, and recognize the meaning in a problem.  The study and description of how words are formed in language, morphology, helps with the technical understanding of math and science.  Since math and science vocabulary are comprised of Latin and Greek roots, it would be smart to introduce word analysis at the same time as learning concepts.  Not only do children enjoy word study, they appreciate when they can recognize patterns and apply this knowledge in their coursework. Many times morphology is overlooked as a way to improve reading comprehension across all subject matter, especially knowledge of words and language in technical subjects.

Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is a Certified Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner, is Orton-Gillingham trained, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.

High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching is located in Plainview, Long Island. Read about what we can offer you and your child:

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