Updated: Dec 13, 2022
My daughter had an amazing Algebra II teacher in high school. Not only was he a talented teacher, he also understood and appreciated some of her challenges.
As a student with both dysgraphia and dyslexia, she has difficulty with letter formation, alignment and visual processing of written material. Unlike a student that simply has messy handwriting, it is much harder for her to read her own writing than for others to read it.
Early in the year, my daughter told her algebra II teacher that some of her math mistakes were caused by misreading her own handwriting of the word “log” (logarithm). If you think about it, the word “log” looks a lot like the number 10, followed by a misaligned 9 or variable letter y. This makes the log symbol very hard to distinguish from a series of numbers for some students with language processing disabilities. It’s also often difficult for these students to properly align and visually process subscripts and exponents, which complicates these problems.
LOG replaces log
Her teacher suggested he could write capital “LOG,” instead of “log.” They both did this for the entire school year.
Such a seemingly little thing helped prevent so much stress and confusion for her, and the rest of the class didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they didn’t even notice!
Since then she expanded on this simple substitution idea. Let me share her techniques.
Substituting capitals for common math variables
Problem variables: x, y, c, t, s
Suggested substitutes: A, B, M, R, or Q
The most common variable, x, looks like a plus (+) sign tilted to the left a little bit. In the handwriting of a student with dysgraphia, x and + might look identical, preventing the student from accurately solving the math problem. The variable y can also be a problem if the student has difficulty controlling letter stroke length.
A student that has to stare at their own handwriting, unable to tell if they wrote x or y or +, may just give up!
Instead of writing algebra problems using x and y, consider substituting in capital letters like A, B, M, R, or Q, because they are distinctive.
If the student finds it easier to use different letters instead of x and y, or even a shape or a picture, consider encouraging this. My daughter sometimes solved advanced math equations using squares and pictures instead of x and y. It made her life a lot easier. For graded work, she would rewrite the answer using the original variables, so the teacher could easily see what she did.
Even worse than x is the variable t for students with these learning issues. It looks just like a plus sign that’s a little too tall. Students with fine motor skill challenges may also not have enough muscle control to accurately draw precise line lengths.
Variable c is visually very similar to a right parenthesis sign. Using a c as a variable in an algebra problem creates havoc for a student with dysgraphia.
The letter s is another to avoid using as a variable, as it can look too much like a 5 to these students.
Avoid variable pairs that look similar within one math problem
Variables that might be OK individually can become a problem if they are in the same problem as another variable that the student happens to write in a similar way, or that are mirror images of each other. Problematic pairings vary by student, but might include:
u , v
i , j
h , n , r
p , q
b , d
Use color to keep track of negative signs
Dropping negative signs within math problems is a common problem for many students. This is especially true for students with dysgraphia.
Using colors helps my daughter tremendously. When symbols are a different color, then her brain is able to distinguish and categorize their functions more easily. To make use of this when solving math problems, she started using two pencils. She writes all the negative signs and equal signs in red, plus sometimes the operators and parentheses also. This made it easier for her to read and track. (pick whatever color - doesn’t matter if it’s red)
Color code exponents or math operators
For advanced students, it’s even possible to use more colors to develop a personalized color tracking system. Different colors can be used based on the type of math or science problem they are working on.
Here’s an example of college chemistry dictated to a scribe by a dyslexic student who directed both the work and the colors to use. The superscript and subscript numbers and symbols are made distinct by being in green; while red is used for the operators, equals and reaction signs.
A multicolor pen, which can be changed between colors by clicking the pen, makes it easier to swap between colors when writing.
Try assistive technology instead of handwriting
My last handwriting idea is simply to avoid handwriting by using assistive technology to write assignments instead! KiwiWrite Math provides a new, flexible assistive technology option. Free trials are available now at kiwiwrite.com!
KiwiWrite Math now includes chemistry equation arrows, and a preferences option to put operators, equal signs, and negative signs in color!
KiwiWrite Math Example