Time well spent;Mathematics

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Arranging the hours into days, months and years is a real headache for dyslexic children. Mel Lever outlines some fun activities that can help

Dyslexic children often have problems acquiring and using mathematical concepts. Their specific difficulties with sequencing and understanding relationships affect much of their mathematical learning. They do not readily recall mathematical facts and may take longer than other children to understand and use information relating to measure and space.

The concept of "time" is often difficult for dyslexic children to grasp. Rote learning of the months of the year and days of the week can help children memorise these sequences, but the dyslexic child may have to practise these sequences more often than others.

Maths schemes and textbooks are full of ideas for teaching children how to tell the time. But the passage of months and days receives less attention. Maths books and tests frequently ask questions such as: "If today is Tuesday, what day will it be in four days' time?" or: "If today is 29 December, what date will it be in one week's time?" Many dyslexic children could answer the first question, but few would be able to answer the second.

Children need to know several facts about the passage of a year if they are to understand such questions. This realisation led me to devise a set of activities to help them to gain this understanding in an active, fun way.

We talked about the scientific facts, and the children seemed to have little difficulty with understanding why we have years. We discussed how the names of the months arose and the lengths of each month. So far, so good. But they had difficulty understanding how one month followed on from the next. Looking at a list of names was not enough. And where do you go when you get to the bottom of the list? Something more had to be done.

I typed out the months of the year and stuck them to strips of card, which I laminated. I made a circle of 12 chairs facing outwards, and placed the months, in order, clockwise on the chairs. Each child then walked round the chairs, starting at January, reciting the names of the months.

The children next repeated the exercise, this time walking round twice. I asked them: "What month comes after December?" Any child who was hesitant could check the answer by referring to the chair labels.

The next activity involved asking each child, in turn, to stand by his or her birthday month. They were asked what month it would be, say, three months later. The children walked round the chairs, counting the months. We did this several times, so all children had a chance to cross the boundary from December to January.

It was important that the children demonstrated the passage of time, so I asked them to walk through one year, then one year and three months, then two years and two months, and so on. As the children became more involved they began to enjoy moving quickly. I asked them to show the passage of time in, say, five years and six months. They then gave each other instructions, with a maximum number of years allowed being ten. Running was allowed. Needless to say after several minutes of this they were all exhausted, but exhilarated.

I then asked if we could find which month we would be in two years hence, which did not involve running round the chairs. Philip was quick to say that if he started at March and walked through three years he would be back at March. Other children gave similar examples.

I then asked where they would be if they started at June and walked through 20 years, 100 years, 1,000 years. I continued with 20 years and two months, 100 years and three months and 1,000 years and six months. The children stood at the given month and either counted through the years, marching on the spot, or saying, "After 20 years I would be at June and then after two months I would be at . . . July, August."

This proved a popular and valuable way of teaching about the passage of time. How, then, could I help them answer problems such as: "Look at a calendar. If today is 26 January, what date will it be in one week?" Virtually all the children I taught would point to the gap at the end of January and say: "How do I know? It doesn't say."

So I decided that if they were to understand how one month followed another we would have to demonstrate this. I photocopied and enlarged the calender from the front of my diary. The children were then asked to cut out the names of the months and the dates, keeping each name with its own set of numbers. The days of the week were retained with January only. So, for instance, January and February 1998 would look like figure 1.

When they had cut out all the months they stuck them together on a piece of card, like a jigsaw, 1 February fitting into the gap next to 31 January, sticking the names of the months beside their dates as they went along. It was a time-consuming exercise as many of the children had difficulty with fine motor skills, but this increased its value.

As the children cut out the shapes they had to concentrate to avoid cutting off any dates and to keep each month with its own set of numbers. As we worked, one child dropped all his pieces on the floor. Sorting them out with his friend he discovered mixing up the names and the dates was not such a catastrophe. Each month had a unique shape, so starting with January, it was possible to fit the other months together like a jigsaw (taking account of the number of days in each month), and putting the names on at the end.

Finally, I asked the children to highlight the first of each month. This made it far easier for them to pick out each month and refer to the calendar. An unbroken array of numbers is difficult for anyone to look at.

Having done this with several groups of children I have varied the instructions to suit the group. For instance, I may ask the children to cut out one month and stick it on the card, lining up the name at the same time. With another group I might ask them to fit the dates together as they cut them out and then stick the names on at the end (helping them to practise saying the months in sequence).

We discussed how the months follow each other, and looked at the layout of calendars and diaries. When the children had their calendar strips they could answer questions such as: "What is the date six weeks after 13 March?" or "Point to 23 April. How many weeks and days is it to 23 July?" The children asked each other questions and worked out the length of time between each other's birthdays.

It was a simple step to ask them to find out the number of days in each month. They used their knuckles to help memorise these facts (figure2).

Following this they used a variety of methods to count the weeks and days in each year.

These activities are invaluable with dyslexic children. I have also tried them with children who have mathematical learning difficulties. They enjoyed it, and it helped their understanding.

We have progressed to do the chair activity with days of the week. A colleague has adapted it to demonstrate the movement of clock hands. The 12 hours are placed on a circle of chairs. One child is the hour hand and another the minute hand. They stand in the 12 o'clock position. Then they are asked to show half past 12, a quarter to one, one o'clock. Again this activity has endless variations.

Many children learn best using materials they can hold in their hand and manipulate themselves. What better, or more fun way is there to show how months flow into each other? The children were not just manipulating their paper and scissors; they were manipulating their bodies - and enjoying it.

Mel Lever teaches at Fairley House School for dyslexic primary children, in London

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