‘Maths anxiety’ is a condition in which children experience real distress either anticipating a maths lesson or whilst being in one. One pupil I taught, I will call her Mary, had become so over wrought by the mere thought of maths that at school she had started to ask to go to the lavatory and stay there for as long as possible to avoid maths lessons. Or she would say she felt sick and ask to go home. She said when I asked her about it that ‘all my thinking stops when I am in maths lessons. I see everyone else writing lots of numbers down, and I don’t know where to begin.’ After I carried out a full assessment of Mary’s processing skills, the reason why she was struggling with maths became clearer. She is a very articulate child, with high expressive and receptive verbal ability and above average general visual perception and yet her anxiety during maths lessons was so extreme, that she was filled with a sense of dread and failure. This was not due to ‘dyscalculia’ which is an intrinsic difficulty with understanding numerical operations, but it was due to her having real difficulty keeping up with the pace of the verbal instructions in class due to the fact that she has a below average verbal memory and difficulty linking verbal and visual instructions. The key to alleviating her stress was to go back to the beginning and slowly take her through the early mathematical processes at her own pace.

Having written two spelling workbooks, and saying that I would never put myself through that level of stress again… I found myself creating my first maths workbook ‘Times Tables, It’s a doddle’ as a result of seeing the stress students like Mary were and will experience, if not taught in a way that works for them. Many pupils I had tutored or assessed had said that they found learning the times tables almost impossible. And this is because expecting students with verbal memory difficulties to learn the times tables by rote learning is not going to work very well. But encouraging these students to find the correct answer from a choice and to recognize the patterns in numbers, whilst they do this, does work and also develops the student’s understanding of numbers simultaneously. This also crucially minimises anxiety levels. The hard work that went into the book has been well worth it, it has been very well received by students and tutors, not just here in the UK but students have worked through the book in places as far away as Singapore, Australia and America.

As discussed above being an assessor as well as a tutor gives me access to tests which highlight specific areas of difficulty with Maths. I have found that students of all ages, and particularly students who have working memory difficulties tend to struggle with fractions. When this difficulty is brought up, with the student, they will invariably say ‘I can’t do fractions’ whilst crossing their arms and looking downcast, in order to convey a general sense of, so that’s that, hoping that we will move swiftly on, and act as though fractions don’t exist…

But as with learning the times tables, these students can get to grips with fractions, if they are taught in a steady, structured way, using imagery where necessary. And linking fractions to real life problems, makes them more relevant. I created a longer version of the times table book which included a section about fractions which was well received and decided to create a separate fraction book as a result. This book, ‘Fractions, Step by Step’( you try and think of a snazzy title…) takes students through understanding how to identify a fraction of a shape or a group of objects, right through to working out how to multiply fractions with different denominators, and how to divide a fraction by a fraction, in a steady, sequential way, building on what has already been learnt. And as students with working memory difficulties often say that they have to have a digital watch because they can’t tell the time using an analogue watch, there is a section in the workbook which explains fractions of an hour.

Sarah Cowell Dip SpLD, SpLD APC, January 2021