Math Instruction for Struggling Readers


As a learner, have you ever felt really frustrated because you know you can do the work but you just have a barrier that prevent you from moving forward?

This is how struggling readers feel when they try to complete their math assignments and assessments but cannot read the words. Did you know that most content area text, including social studies, science, and math, are written several reading levels higher than where the students are at in reading? Did you know that most students are introduced to 1000 to 2000 new vocabulary words per each year? (Harmon et. al., 2005).

The reality is that in order to do math, students need to be relatively good readers.

In order to put you, the reader of this blog, into the perspective of a struggling learner, I’ve included some simulations below.

Try them and experience what your struggling student readers experience when doing their math work!

Reading Issues Simulation

Experiencing Math Issues

Experiencing Attention Issues

Experiencing Organization Issues

Experiencing Writing Issues

So, as a teacher, how do you support students with struggling readers in math? In order to support struggling readers, teachers need to understand their students’ deficits and strengths!

Math challenges faced by students with reading disabilities

  • Understanding the math questions due to weak phonemic awareness and decoding strategies
  • Dealing with math vocabulary
  • Movement and/or reversals of text & numbers
  • Remembering dates, names, numbers, list that lack context (i.e. random)
  • Processing during tests & assessments
  • Limited executive function due to brain function being used to read text
  • Challenges with rote learning such as math facts

Strengths of students with reading disabilities

  • Curiosity, gets new concepts linked to meaning
  • Enjoys puzzles & building models
  • Excellent thinking skills in comprehension, reasoning, & abstraction
  • Excellent listening memory
  • High success with practicing reading in subject-area vocabulary
  • Often excels in subjects not linked to reading such as math, computers, visual arts, science, and other conceptual subjects

By understanding students’ deficits and strengths, teachers can build on this understanding to help struggling readers excel in math.

Supporting students with reading disabilities

  • Use decodable, easy to read, text and sight words in math problems
  • Engage students curiosity so they can explore the meaning of new concepts
  • Use puzzles & show models to solve math problems
  • Teach math through discussions and group work to take advantage of excellent listening memory
  • Explicitly teach and support math vocabulary with a visual math wall and math dictionary
  • Extra processing time during class work and assessments
  • Take advantage of students’ excellent thinking skills in comprehension, reasoning, and abstraction
  • Support learning with assistive technology (e.g. Google Read/Write & Open Dyslexic font)

As I am a teacher with a reading disability (i.e. dyslexia), colleagues have often asked what it it like to be dyslexic … well, I found a website that simulates dyslexia. After showing colleagues my world of reading, I explain that I have developed strategies to read like reading words as pictures and reading conceptually. Students will develop their own strategies through hard work and resilience.

Check Out the Dyslexic Reality Here!

Using an adaptive font can significantly help students to deal with word and letter reversals. I use an Open Dyslexic font on my web browsers and in my word documents.

OpenSource Dyslexic Font

As a teacher, I ask you to be patient with your students who are struggling readers because with work and effort, one day they will become strong readers …. because not all students are good readers … yet!

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston


Harmon, J. M., Hedrick, W. B., & Wood, K. D. (2005). Research on vocabulary instruction in the content areas: Implications for struggling readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly21(3), 261-280.

What it’s really like to read with dyslexia

Updated: December 12, 2017 — 10:02 pm

The Author

Deborah Weston

I love teaching and have been practicing for over 18 years in the Peel DSB. I have taught grades 2 through to grade 8, including split and contained Spec Ed classes. I am an advocate for issues on Workplace Health & Safety, Special Education, Mental Wellness, LGBTQT, and FNMI. I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together. In 2015, I earned my PhD in Education Policy and Leadership with a focus on teacher collaboration and policy implementation. Follow me on Twitter @dr_weston_PhD

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