Ella's numbers don't jibe. She adds when she should subtract and carries when she should borrow. She sees 9 and reads 6 and can't keep the 8 times table straight. And long ago she decided that in order to avoid the confusion of north, south, east and west, north is always straight ahead. Ella's in fifth grade but her math skills aren't. Teacher Says: Get a new angle on math. When math concepts don't compute, help kids develop the fundamental skills of sequencing, space organization, reasoning and strategy by connecting math to everyday life. It might mean teaching Ella to dribble upside down.
Math dysfunction, or dyscalculia, can include a combination of problems in language, memory or sequential processing as well as visual and spatial confusion. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), dyscalculia affects 2 percent to 6.5 percent of school-age children in the United States.
It can stem from a visual perception problem. "Does she misalign numbers or have trouble in division figuring out where she should be now and where she goes next?" asks Donna Wendelburg, executive director of Achievers Unlimited of Wisconsin, which provides functional, motor and vision testing and therapy.
It might be a lack of instruction," says Sheldon Horowitz, director of professional services at NCLD. "It could be poorly designed curriculum. Some students don't see the connection between math in class and in the real world," says John Allen Paulos, a math professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.
And sometimes it's not the numbers at all. "They have the ability to succeed in math but have committed themselves to the idea that they absolutely cannot be successful in the subject. Girls form an overwhelming majority of these students," says Bjorn Adler, a neuropsychologist and director of the Dyscalculia Center in Hollviken, Sweden.
Though Horowitz believes that dyscalculia is a lifelong neurological disorder, Adler disagrees. "The diagnosis of dyscalculia is only a description of the present stage of development, applicable for a maximum of one year," he says. His research indicates that many children with dyscalculia outgrow their diagnosis "after some years." Ironically, kids with dyscalculia often have normal or advanced language skills and a good memory for the printed word.
To get to the bottom line with Ella, seek the advice of a qualified educational diagnostician or psychologist. As a first step, Horowitz advises parents and testing professionals to collect anecdotal information about student performance and confirm it with teachers. "Don't create a disability where there is none," he says. If targeted tutoring still doesn't add up for Ella, Horowitz recommends diagnostic math testing.
Despite the gloomy picture Ella's numbers might tell, there's no debate that kids with differences in math ability benefit when concepts are approached in a variety of ways. "It is important to stick with a hard problem and come at it from many different angles," says Paulos, who uses stories and card tricks to make math appealing to his math majors.
Try some of the following unique approaches to help Ella sequence, organize, reason and strategize.
Sequencing, for kids of all ages: Fold napkins for the dinner table. Copying, transferring and applying facts in sequential order are essential to completing math assignments, homework and tests accurately. Give Ella instructions orally to complete a simple napkin fold. Or use a guidebook with simple, step-by-step illustrations. Find clear diagrams and engaging shapes in "Napkins: 60 Easy Folds" by Norma Starts (Turkeyfoot, $19.95).
Space organization, Grades K-3: To help Ella keep her numbers aligned correctly when she calculates, have her keep a balloon up in the air with her hands. Wendelburg calls this "dribbling upside down." By keeping a balloon up in the air or dribbling a ball, kids get a multisensory experience of "what straight means," she says. Older kids can use a tennis ball, then graduate to a ping-pong ball, dribbling first with their whole hand then two fingers, then one.
Reasoning, Grades 6-12: Get her tools to develop her understanding of quantities, like her own wall clock or a calculator. Engage her in guessing how long it might take to complete tasks, then set departure and arrival times for activities or events. Use the calculator at the grocery store. Before you go shopping, prepare a list and a budget. Have Ella track accumulated costs and make budget predictions. When traveling, encourage her to use her calculator to estimate legs of the trip, tolls, tips or change.
Strategize, Grades 3-5: To memorize the times tables and give Ella a better sense of direction, "work with numbers through movement," says Wendelburg. Write the answers to the 8 times table on large cards, starting with 8 times 1. Place them in order on the floor, from south to north, and have her count the number of times she jumps to get to 64. Do the same for the 7 times table, but line them up from east to west. How many cards west to reach 49?
When you do math with your kids, play the angles, figure the odds and run the numbers. Take Ella by the hand and lead her out of that math book and into the facts and figures around her. Make math engaging and meaningful and soon she'll be ordering her answers to line up straight, follow the signs and head north.
Contact Vuko at email@example.com and join her live online at www.washingtonpost.com Jan. 7 at 2 p.m. to talk about math.