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Little monsters shape up

Mel Lever reveals her secret weapon in teaching number skills to dyslexic children. Dyslexic children's difficulties with language are well documented but many have trouble acquiring basic number skills too.

Mathematics is a logical, sign and symbol-oriented linguistic system and thus, when the child is faced with this special symbolic system, they may put up a psychological barrier. This is true for many children, those with other learning difficulties as well as those who have no perceivable ones.

Many have difficulties from an early age, encountering problems in acquiring several skills.

Children learn more when they enjoy what they are doing. The use of concrete materials is of prime importance when teaching the child with learning difficulties. Much mathematical work and learning takes place through play.

However, there comes a time when children have to learn to use the written number system, to read sums and to work out the answers. It is often at this stage that the child becomes confused by the procedures to which he or she has been introduced.

With my class of dyslexic children I endeavour to teach them to understand the conventions of the system in order to equip them for later on, and also to present many different types of learning situations.

The practice of basic number skills is important. Dyslexic children need to repeat procedures often if they are not to forget what they have once understood and learned. In order for such learning not to become automated and thus fail in a problem-solving situation, it must be presented in a variety of ways. This is where the teacher and the children can have fun.

Here is how "monster maths" works. The children are given several number problems to work out. The answer to each one gives them the number of bodies, heads, eyes, ears and so on of the monster. The children then draw it. When they have finished they swop monsters to check the attributes.

We also have a competition to find the best one and a small prize is given to the winner.

Our latest monster was to be made up of the following: 1 body, 5 - 2 heads, 2 x l0 ears, 3 x 3 eyes, 12 V 2 noses, 24 V 4 mouths, (3 x 4) + 6 arms, (4 x 4) + 5 legs, (30 V 6) + 31 fingers. The children loved doing them and the whole lessons took just 30 minutes.

This has proved an invaluable vehicle for ensuring that the children practise the four rules, look carefully at the signs, follow the conventions and check their work. The idea can be used for a quick lesson or for homework. Number problems can be presented in many ways: algorithms can be used, calculators can be introduced. The teacher can decide precisely which areas of mathematics he or she wishes to revise.

The concepts of shape can be revised by adding details of shape to various attributes. For example, the monster can have triangular noses, rectangular mouths, pentagonal ears. Their bodies can be decorated with many different shapes.

My pupils enjoy this way of learning. We have more correct answers first time when practising number skills this way then we do when children are given a page of "sums" to do. Have a go and see what your class comes up with!

Mel Lever works at Fairley House School in London and is currently carrying out research at Kingston University into maths and dyslexia.

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