Living with Dyslexia: Are Math Programs the Answer?

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By Karen Cavallaro

June 2017

My son was diagnosed with a “math disability” and dyslexia at the age of 8. Like most everyone I talk to, we spent way too many years struggling. I’d been Googling reading and math issues for three years trying all sorts of things to help him. Finding reading intervention was a lot easier than finding math intervention. In all that searching I learned the best way to teach math was through a multisensory program. I literally spent thousands of dollars on very popular multisensory programs. I bought at least four of them as well as several online game-based “drill and kill” subscriptions—each new program promising to fix the issues with cute dots, number lines, gimmicky games, you name it, and I believed the promises. I. Was. So. Naive.

None of those programs worked. Sure, he made slight progress, but we were sinking quickly and I knew it. Was I such a complete failure as a parent that I couldn’t even follow a math curriculum with success? Was it my son? Was he so lost that nothing was going to work?

I’m here to tell you that the answer for your struggling math student will NOT be found in any math program. I’m on social media and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t see a parent in an online forum asking which program is best. And my heart aches for parents and for children because we need to change the conversation from programs to educator training.

Fortunately, I began to understand that if I truly wanted to help my son, I had to figure out HOW to teach him. I obviously couldn’t rely on a program to do it. As a society, we have become so accustomed to talking about programs, we’ve stopped talking about teaching. Teaching is an art that takes scholarship and humility. If a student is struggling, it is never the student’s fault.

David Berg, E.T., is the Founder and Director of the Making Math Real Institute (MMR) in Berkeley, California where teaching is the focus, not programs. I was so blessed to find David at a time when I was willing to just hand my son a calculator and call it a day. My training at MMR changed my life, my son’s, and now the lives of the students I’m fortunate enough to work with. It was David who taught me that students who struggle in math are not struggling with the math content. They are struggling with the necessary development to do the math.

“All students need and deserve a well-trained teacher, as a program cannot support student’s executive function of self-initiating, self-activating, and self-sustaining working memory. These are the universal areas of underdevelopment with all students who struggle in math,” says Berg. “For math instruction to be successful, it must activate and integrate specific areas in the brain: parietal-temporal integration for exact math, and according to the most recent research, fronto-parietal for mental math. Therefore, the development of math has nothing to do with content. Content that does not activate and integrate these brain areas will create no development. A program cannot provide this structure.”

Kris Williams, M.A., of Dreams Unlocked Tutoring in Nevada, is a private educator who spent years in the classroom as a special education teacher. Kris explains, “as an educator it was all about choosing the right program for this kid or that kid. I never had one math class in my graduate or undergraduate coursework on HOW to teach math. I tried a lot of programs over the years and I still had math students who were trying to memorize procedures. I couldn’t figure out how to help them understand that the actual underlying meaning was in the math.” Kris’s advice to parents who are out there searching for a program? “There is no program. It is not about a new program with cute pictures and jazzy slogans. There is no substitution or shortcut for personally understanding the underlying connection between the concrete and the abstract at a visceral level, and knowing how to guide students to make that connection systematically and incrementally. Students who do not have that understanding are doomed to memorize procedures for the rest of their lives, much like readers who cannot read unknown words are doomed to memorize every word they ever want to read.” Williams also warns, “all trainings are not equal. I’ve tried trainings which claimed to be OG-based and those weren’t working either.”

“I realized how important the incrementation was, so you build one little increment at a time, and the kids are never lost. It was clear that my prior teaching was missing the incrementation that developed understanding. Most programs start at the abstract level,” says Williams.

The concrete to abstract structure is vital. It takes a student through the concrete (blocks) stage to the abstract (numbers on paper) stage with precise management of manipulatives and precise language all the while activating the key areas of the brain necessary for students to connect and understand the symbolic form (abstract) of math. Once I was trained in this process, it became clear that her previous trainings were missing the incrementation that effectively transfers the concrete learning from the blocks directly to the abstract symbols. It’s what is between those two bookends (concrete and abstract) that is the missing link.

There is such a high failure rate with math education that math is taught in an urgent fashion, each school racing, it seems, to teach children math content earlier and earlier in their school careers.  It was only through my training that I began to see that math is really an elegant architecture that is totally interconnected. It isn’t about getting the math curriculum to the students earlier, it’s about addressing the development and content. “There is a specific developmental sequence that connects all math content from kindergarten to calculus, and when students are provided with the correct sequence they benefit deeply from the interconnection of all the math codes. Textbooks, however, present material in disassociated and disconnected formats so students must rely on memorizing each content area as a separate entity,” says Berg. “Furthermore, the codes presented in most textbooks are incorrect, so students are being taught incorrect mathematics that cannot connect to the math they will need in future grades. Every aspect of math is expressed in symbolic codes, and like science, math is a series of interconnected codes that express what is real. Only a well-trained educator can provide the structure to help students decode and encode all of the interconnected math codes. The developmental outcome of successful encoding and decoding is comprehension; and comprehension is the direct experience of activated working memory. A textbook cannot activate working memory.”

As a parent and now an educator who works with struggling students, I’m here to tell you we’ve all been duped into thinking the answer is in a program when, in fact, the best math teachers do not need a curriculum or program to teach math. Those students who currently do “well” in math are those students who have good executive function skills and can memorize codes, formulas, etc. If you are a parent at home wondering what to do, I urge you to seek out someone who understands the developmental process necessary for successful math intervention or take training yourself.

As I sat in my training classes over the last two years, I was so angry. We are selling our kids short. Every math IEP I look at states, “allow use of a calculator.” Why? Because we’ve given up on believing a struggling student can learn math facts. We totally undervalue how critical math facts are to math development and how much we are inhibiting our children’s learning potential by not teaching them.

Children who are struggling with ADHD, dyslexia, math, etc., typically have underdeveloped executive function skills and/or underdeveloped working memory skills. Their brains can easily become overloaded with the processing demands of completing a math problem. We can lighten the processing demands required for students by teaching math facts. I have yet to encounter a student, my own son included, who was not able to learn their math facts, but traditional “drill and kill” methods are torturing our dyslexic learners. Instead of changing the method, we just keep drilling them more or we find a song for them to memorize. Respecting the neurodevelopment necessary to achieve math facts is critical also.

Calculators are a great tool, but shouldn’t be traded for genuine learning, because if students are given the crutch of a calculator before learning to develop the ability to activate working memory, they will frequently rely on the calculator to replace their working memory picture rather than activating working memory for themselves. We are trading a deep understanding of math codes and development for shortcuts and gimmicks that leave students disconnected from what is real. We are losing the best minds in the world due to inadequate math instruction and we aren’t doing any better with reading instruction. It is time to change the conversation from “which program is best” to “which educator, which training is best.” Until we do, we are kidnapped and held captive by textbooks and programs that fall short of their promises to educate.

I have seen and been a part of what can be accomplished when parents ask for more from our education system. I urge you to start asking for more. Our kids deserve it.


Karen Cavallaro is a parent to three children who struggle with math, dyslexia and ADHD. She was a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia, Nevada. She has nearly 300 hours of Making Math Real coursework, training in Orton-Gillingham, and continues to study the English writing system through Structured Word Inquiry. She operates a learning center in Reno, Nevada.

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