Working Memory Difficulties, Maths anxiety, Times tables and Fractions

‘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