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New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ planned overhaul of how schools will teach reading and his new programs and screenings for children with dyslexia are a big step in the right direction, one that more communities should be taking.

Tackling dyslexia, which affects approximately 1 in 5 students and impacts the way they decode words and process information, is obviously key to ensuring reading success. What is sometimes lost, however, is the degree to which dyslexia also affects other subjects.

My child, Six, came home from school one day several years ago upset over a failed math test. We went through the questions and discussed the answers. But when I asked Six to read the problems aloud, it became clear that math wasn’t the problem.

Six have dyslexia and we knew from an early age that it affected their reading and writing. We worked with their teachers to put in place accommodations in these subjects, but we did not initially understand the impact of dyslexia on mathematics.

Lynne Munson

Students with dyslexia have difficulty reading words, letters and other symbols. So in math, long written instructions and word problems can be particularly difficult.

Six wasn’t the only student I know who had math readability issues. A few years ago, a Detroit-area sixth-grade student, Mya Gooden, sent me a letter about an early version of a math curriculum colleagues and I had written. Mya said the old version used complex language and difficult-to-understand vocabulary, and she offered suggestions for improvements, such as simplifying words and reducing the length and number of sentences in word problems. “It’s hard to learn a new math concept when you’re struggling with vocabulary,” she wrote. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mya wrote the letter as a writing assignment. I hope Mya got an A, because she was so persuasive that we made the changes in subsequent versions of the program.

It’s not just students with learning differences and struggling readers that educators need to consider; teaching mathematics with a view to readability is at the heart of early primary education. Young children often lack the skills to understand the vocabulary of the word problems presented to them. Consider the question below, which is the type editors might use with first-graders.

Rachel has 12 carnival tickets. She buys others to ride the roller coaster. Now Rachel has a total of 20 tickets. How many tickets did Rachel buy to ride the roller coaster? Use the arrow to show your simplification strategy. Next, write an equation with a question mark to show how you might find the unknown number of students.

Math has the right amount of rigor for the early years. But there are too many words in the problem, and some of the vocabulary may be too difficult for children learning to read – or for those with reading disabilities.

Language should not get in the way of students, especially when it comes to achieving learning goals and developing a strong mathematical identity. Unfortunately, many math resources lack readability, and teachers can also inadvertently create lessons and assignments with this shortcoming. But there are ways to ensure that math education is accessible to all learners.

Parents, teachers, policy makers and school leaders need to work together to ensure schools use curricula that consider phonics, phonemes and phonetic patterns. Find out if math textbooks and other teaching materials use the principles of universal design for learning, an approach to curriculum creation that helps teachers adapt classroom resources to all learners. Carefully review student textbooks and make sure they can be easily read by all the children in your community.

For teachers creating math lessons and assignments, here are the steps that have worked for the teachers and curriculum writers I work with and have found useful for my child:

  • Use white space liberally in student workbooks, quizzes, and other teaching materials to avoid cluttering words and symbols.
  • Use easily readable fonts and font sizes, and include icons or images to clarify words that are not easy to understand
  • Keep word problem sentences short and concise
  • Avoid words that have multiple meanings, sound the same, or are multisyllabic
  • Use proper names that are readable, diverse and representative of your communities
  • Use visual models and mathematical drawings whenever possible. For example, tape diagrams—rectangular models resembling a piece of tape—can help solve various types of word problems.
  • Explicitly teach words that may be difficult but that students need to learn to build their math vocabulary

This may seem like just one more thing teachers have to worry about in an already busy schedule – during an extraordinarily difficult time in education. But paying attention to the readability of math instruction will help ensure that all students can succeed.