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Students With Both mathematics and Reading Difficulties

Students who have both reading and mathematics difficulties are obviously at a double disadvantage. However, even though the reading and mathematical processing areas of the brain are separate from each other, these two cerebral regions interact whenever the learner must translate word problems into symbolic representations. Here are some strategies that are effective with these students.

Cue words in word problems. Help these students decode language into mathematical operations by alerting them to common phrases or cue words found in word problems that identify which operation to use.

Word problem maps. Give students with reading problems a story map to highlight certain important aspects of the story such as introduction, plot line, characters, time line, and story climax. Gagnon and Maccini (2001) have developed a similar learning aid, called a word problem map, to help students with mathematics difficulties organize their thoughts as they tackle word problems. The map can be completed by an individual student or by students working in groups of two or three.

The RIDD strategy. The RIDD strategy was developed by Jackson (2002) in 1997 for students with learning disabilities. In practice, it has shown to be particularly helpful to students who have difficulties in both reading and mathematics. RIDD stands for Read, Imagine, Decide, and Do. The following is a description of these four steps.

Step 1: Read the problem. Read the passage from beginning to end. This helps students focus on the entire task rather than just one line at a time. Good readers often skip words within a text, or they substitute another word and continue reading. In this step, students decide ahead of time what they will call a word that they do not recognize. In mathematics word problems, substitutions can be made for long numbers rather than saying the entire number on the first reading. Teachers should model this substitution when they read the problem aloud to the class.

Step 2: Imagine the problem. In this step, the students create a mental picture of what they have read. Using imagery when learning new material activates more brain regions and transforms the learning into meaningful visual, auditory, or kinesthetic images of information. This makes it easier for the new information to be stored in the students’ own knowledge base. Imagery helps students focus on the concept being presented, and provides a way of monitoring their performance.

Step 3: Decide what to do. In order to generate a mental picture of the situation, this step encourages students to read the entire mathematics problem without stopping. They then decide what to do and in what order to solve the problem. For example, in a word problem requiring addition and then subtraction, students would read the problem, create a mental picture, and then decide whether to add or subtract first. For young students, teachers can guide them through this step with appropriate questioning so the students can decide what procedures to use. Note how this step combines reading, visualization, and problem solving.

Step 4: Do the work. During this step the students actually complete the task. Often, students start reading a mathematics problem, stop part way through it, and begin writing numerical expressions. This process can produce errors because the students do not have all the information. By making this a separate step, students realize that there are things to do between reading the problem and writing it down. Jackson (2002) observed that when students used RIDD to solve mathematics problems, they liked this strategy because they perceived the last step as the only time they did work. Apparently, the students did not realize that what they did in the first three steps was all part of the process for solving problems.

Computer assistance. Computer programs are now available for elementary level students that address both reading and mathematics weaknesses. For example, Knowledge Adventure has several software titles that focus on teaching basic mathematics and reading skills while adhering to national and state standards. Each program provides instruction at a student’s own pace and includes automatic progress tracking for each student so teachers can provide additional instruction to those who need it.


Gagnon, J., & Maccini, P. (2001). Preparing students with disabilities for algebra. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34, 8–15.

Jackson, F. B., (2002, May). Crossing content: A strategy for students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 37, 279–282.

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