The digitization of math: Accessibility

At Texthelp, we believe everyone deserves to understand and be understood. This includes in the math classroom. Digital math teaching and learning offers unparalleled accessibility for all students and offers educators real time saving solutions.

In our latest season of Texthelp Talks, we'll be exploring this topic in depth. Starting with a two part discussion with Texthelpers who are passionate about all things math. In part 1, Louis and Paddy chat about the benefits of accessible math, the impact on math education and how we as educators can make our math classrooms more inclusive and accessible to all.

Digital math resources

Dyslexia in the math classroom

Discover how Dyslexia affects math learning from the British Dyslexia Association.

Free math guide

Explore our guide to teaching math in today's diverse classrooms.

Digital math tool

Equatio makes it easy to create digital, accessible maths.


Louis Shanafelt (00:15):
All right. Welcome to a new season of the Texthelp Talks podcast. Your space online to listen, learn and explore inclusion. Make sure you're subscribed through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. I'm Louis Shanafelt from Texthelp, and I'll be guiding us through season four, where we'll be talking about all things math, teaching and learning, a topic that I am very passionate about.

We'll be focusing on the digitization of math and how this can make math learning accessible to all, while also offering time saving benefits for educators. We'll also be wrapping up the season with some bonus episodes featuring expert speakers from across the globe. But first, to kick off the season, I'm joined by my colleague Paddy McGrath to explore the digitization of math instructional materials. After our chat, you'll leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. So let's get started. Paddy, it's great to have you on the podcast today. Can you tell our listeners a bit about yourself and the work you do here at Texthelp and beyond?

Paddy McGrath (01:40):
Thanks, Louis. Good introduction there. Good to have another season of Texthelp Talks going. So I am, yeah, Paddy McGrath and I obviously have a slightly different accent to you, Louis. I'm based on the opposite side of the Atlantic in Texthelp's Belfast headquarters where Texthelp was indeed founded, and I suppose I have an odd job title, Head of Education Strategy for EMEA. And for those who don't follow the EMEA acronym, that's Europe, Middle East and Africa. But really, my passion is about spreading the word about inclusion and accessibility to lots of the wonderful teachers and educators that we deal with across mainly Europe and down in through the Middle East. And the team here in Belfast that I work with, they're responsible for everything from selling to customer success, creating resources and spreading the word.

And I suppose when I'm not doing the day job, I'm also doing the day job, Louis, because if you don't hear from me on something like this, you might see me at a conference or see me on a webinar or perhaps on another podcast. I think there's one thing that I noticed in your intro. The only thing we're likely to differ on today, Louis, is you say math and I say maths, so I'll warn the listeners in advance that they'll hear a lot about maths from me, and may have to just slightly tweak that for math depending on where you come from in the world.

Louis (02:56):
Yeah, that's an excellent point. So if you hear me slip up, please forgive me or forgive him. So Paddy, I've always known about your title, but it was interesting to kind of hear that from your perspective and from your mouth there. But I know you're an extremely busy person and you get around a lot and you meet with a lot of customers and hear a lot of things in the market there, which is always important for us to kind of stay closer to home. So it's really, really wonderful to have you here today. And I want to kind of set things up by talking about accessibility for all.

So at Texthelp, we do believe that everyone deserves to understand and be understood. And we create technology that helps build confidence at school with reading, writing, and math. We do it because it matters to us, and that reading and writing is difficult for many people. We do it because it makes school, university, and work a more inclusive environment. And more than anything, we do it because people often do their best when they understand and are understood, when every student in class can achieve more than they thought. However, we know assistive technology tools, that are found within our schools to help students access learning, are more commonly used in subjects like English or ELA, wherever you might be listening from.

The research, however, shows that if students are going to struggle with text in some fashion or form, that they're also going to face some of these same challenges in the math classroom. Now, a stat here, interesting to share with you here today, Paddy, and for our listeners, is the British Dyslexia Association estimates that as many as 60% of learners with dyslexia also experience challenges with math learning. So Paddy, from your experience within education, the schools you work with and the people you talk to, how would you describe the awareness levels when it comes to accessibility, particularly in the math classroom, compared to other subjects like English?

Paddy (05:10):
Yeah, Louis, thanks. And there's probably a good bridge from that statistic there because I think when we talk about math and maths, we talk about those things, we tend to always focus on the numbers. We tend to think about the numbers. But if you take a typical maths question that is used, so many maths questions and textbooks have text-based questions within there, and they'll combine the English text with the numbers and the symbols within that as well. And I think we can't forget about that. And I think often we do unfortunately do that in the maths classroom. And I think, certainly from my experience in the UK and in Europe, it's fair to say I think maths accessibility is almost like that forgotten cousin. You know that forgotten cousin that turns up at the wedding, and you go, "Hey, who's that over there?" And kind of forget about the importance of maths within that, because for so long, and I suppose we're almost guilty of it in Texthelp, we talk about reading and writing and reading, and writing is synonymous with literacy and therefore it's synonymous with words.

And I think there's always been a view held within educators, and not through any intent, but there's always been a view there that, "Well, this is about words, this is all this is about." Dyslexia impacts words. You've just told us the stat that it's much more than words, but also that it's always going to be about words in that written form. So I think it's fair to say that the maths classroom has always fared very poorly. I remember even in regards to technology, Louis, a number of years ago, not long after I started Texthelp, very excited about doing a presentation and asked all of the maths teachers in the room, what technology they used in the maths classroom. The number one thing was a whiteboard, and the number two thing was a calculator, and it didn't go any further. And so if we're at that level where technology is a challenge, how much more of a level can we be sometimes, that was about five years ago, to think about accessibility?

It's so important. It's so unfair to be thinking about accessibility tools and accessibility in general, just for words. Every pupil that's studying maths, every pupil moves from an English classroom or a history classroom or an economics classroom to a maths classroom, and they've got to have barriers removed everywhere. So awareness needs to be raised. And I think maybe one last thing on that Louis if you don't mind is, we've all come a very long way in technology over the last number of years. And that's very exciting because new opportunities have been opened, barriers have started to be removed. And I think we're very fortunate ourselves, Louis, in Texthelp, that we've been innovative and progressive with going, "Here is a tool that can genuinely, in Equatio, really, really help." So we're spreading awareness, but we need everybody else to be on the same page with us and raise awareness for math as well.

Louis (07:49):
Yeah, no, all really good points. And we used to, over here in the States in North America, we often would ask people, "What digital tools are you using for numeracy and mathematics?" And you knew if they started with the digital tools of, I have digital, or a mechanical calculator, in your classroom or a pencil sharpener, that is not the type of digital tool that's going to help students. So we really need to provide, like you said, accessible and accommodations for students that need those and removing those barriers are vitally important, especially to the work we do here at Texthelp.

So is there anything that you can think of in terms of benefits digital math materials offer in terms of accessibility? So what do you hear from folks in terms of accessibility specific to the digital math materials that either they get access to or maybe we can help provide?

Paddy (08:46):
Yeah, when we think about accessibility, Louis, we're really, in true terms, we're talking about inclusion. We're talking about, in a maths classroom, how do we make sure that every single pupil doesn't have a barrier and has the supports and the scaffolds that they need? And I often talk about the whole iceberg approach to a classroom of pupils and say, "Look, many of us, as educators, will know the top of the water line, those pupils that we can identify, they have a specific need. They might have a physical disability, they may have an individual learning need, and those are pupils that we can identify and we can say, 'Right, we can give them a tool, we can give them scaffolds and supports and we can help them with that.'" But we can't forget, in that instance, the pupils underneath the line that may just be struggling with maths. They literally may have a problem. They may actually just need to express maths differently.

And if we don't have accessible maths to start off with and really focus on that, what we're really doing is disadvantaging those pupils that have diverse learning needs straight away because they don't have the supports they need. Pupils, for example, with a physical disability, may not have a way to express maths because they may not be able to use pen and paper or the keyboard. And then there's, beyond that, there's pupils who where English, many of us have been working, or are in touch with schools, where English is simply not the first language there in the school, it's the minority language. And so we need a common language of maths, and accessibility and accessible maths can help support a multilingual environment as well in a school.

So I think we've got to look at it in the round, and look at if we start from a really firm foundation, which is, how do we make accessible maths? And then we look at, how do we give all of those pupils the tools that take that accessible maths and really make it actionable, really make it that they can engage with it and not have barriers to access? We start to go back to the start, which is inclusion for all and everybody wins in that instance, Louis, from what I've seen.

Louis (10:48):
Yeah, absolutely. And your answer there leads right into the next question that I wanted to ask you, which is, how can we specifically make more inclusive and more accessible math? So when we present math to students, how can it become more inclusive and more accessible in your opinion?

Paddy (11:08):
Well, I think it goes back, we talked about dyslexia a few questions ago, and many people listening will be aware, if they've worked with a dyslexic student or perhaps dyslexic themselves, they'll know that text-to-speech is a really important thing there. It really helps in understanding. But if you create a piece of maths or you give out a PDF, for example, a maths worksheet or a book, the challenge with that in a lot of times is it hasn't been made accessible from the start. So if you give pupils a tool, you need that tool to be able to either have access to accessible maths or have a method to make that maths more accessible. But ultimately, whatever resource you give to a pupil or whatever you're asking them to do when it comes to engaging in the maths classroom, you've either got to make sure it's accessible as a foundational piece of how you write it and how you create it, or you've got to give them the tools to make sure that even if it's not, for whatever reason, that it is accessible there.

And I think that means, from a quality of maths education, we've talked a lot about removing barriers, we've talked about accommodations, but actually it's really just equity of access. Because 30 pupils in a room, you're giving every single pupil a fair chance at engaging with that maths, editing that maths, creating with that maths and understanding it, and being able to express themselves really well. So it's like you said at the start, to understand and be understood, really important. We need to give pupils to get ahold of maths education really, really well and increase that quality, ways to engage with it on their terms in any way that they need.

Louis (12:46):
And we didn't really go too far or delve into each other's backgrounds here, Paddy. But as you know, because we've known each other for a while, I spent 20 years in the classroom, and I worked with students, I worked with parents, and I worked with a variety of different learners. And they might be seventh graders, but they might be learning at a level well below seventh grade level. And I think that's where sometimes math can be challenging. Which kind of leads me to my next question.

Educators have so many things on their plate, and it's hard to provide a lot of differentiation in the instruction because it takes so much planning, and I know you know that Paddy, but why should educators care about providing accessible documents? I think that there's a barrier there, teachers just want to be able to use the materials that are presented to them by the publishers, but as you said, we got to make sure that those documents and those assets that are given to kids are accessible. So can you go into why educators should care? Why is it that they should care so badly about what they give their kids?

Paddy (13:54):
Yeah, and that's actually, it's quite a big answer, Louis, because I mean, on one hand, there are what sometimes people think of as the buzzwords. There's adaptive teaching, there's personalized learning, there's differentiation. But these are not buzzwords, these are very important parts of a pedagogical approach to making sure kids can master and understand maths. And with accessible maths, again, it means that we have given pupils the tools and we've given them the flexibility to drive those things. So for example, with the right tools, based on accessible maths, we hopefully have given our children independence in learning. We've given them ways to support themselves when they need it, and to draw on that. But we've also, by the very nature, created an adaptive path to learning as well within that. We've also created it to be personal also. So whilst some may talk about those as buzzwords, they're absolutely not. They're really critical that they're included.

And I think making accessible maths is the foundation, and providing accessible content or tools that can take content and make it accessible, as you've rightly said, really, really, really lets them engage. And I think what disheartens both you and I sometimes, Louis, is when you talk to people as a maths person, you talk to people, you go, "Well, I was a maths teacher." And they go, "I hated maths at school." And it's just the worst thing ever. And you know my wife's a physics teacher, and often we're out and people go, "Oh, miss, I hated physics at school. And it wasn't you, you were a great teacher, but I just didn't like it."

And I think a lot of the maths problems that I've seen are to do with frustration of accessing the maths content itself. It's not necessarily in the concepts around it. It's in accessing it. So if you provide accessible maths, and again, you provide the tools within that, suddenly pupils will genuinely, in the widest possible sense of the word, find maths accessible, in that they can engage with it and they can use different ways to understand it or explore it. And really that engagement piece I think is really important. And I suppose there's lots of things we can talk about outside of that, but sometimes the disconnect in maths can be, "Well, what's that got to do with the real world?"

But when you have technology at play based on an accessible mathspace, suddenly you've got different ways to explore that and make it relevant. If your brain works to connect it with a physical, digital thing, or a physical thing in the classroom, or an image, the tools are there. So I suppose in the round, if you do that and you provide accessible, you remove the barriers, you take away frustration, you allow them to be more independent, then really, from a pupil's perspective and students' perspective, it just gives them more opportunities to think and reason and explain and model their thinking. And I think it's a foundational thing for me, Louis, it's so critical to all of the layers of maths teaching you would lay on top of it.

Louis (16:52):
Right, yeah. This reminds me of a few nights ago, Paddy, and I know you'll appreciate this. My daughter, of course, knows that I was a former math teacher. That's not a surprise to her, but I can't really help her like I'd like to in her Algebra 2 class because I'm like, "Hey, it's been years since dad has done that math." I was excited, not because I didn't want to do math after work, Paddy, who doesn't want to do more math after an eight-hour workday. But I was excited when she got to a math class, Paddy that she couldn't rely on dad anymore. Not cause I didn't want to help her, but because I felt like she kind of used me as a crutch, because she knew she could come to me because I taught the material recently.

And I wanted her to be more independent, which is what you just touched on. And having her build her independence, I think in giving her access to different tools, and different models of approach in terms of the instruction, I think helped make her become a better student. And hey, she's got an A in Algebra 2 Honors right now, Paddy, so I'm super proud of her. And she hasn't asked Dad for help at all. So we'll leave it there. But I really liked your answer, and it made me think of helping my own child in my own real world scenario.

Paddy (18:11):
I think, Louis, as parents, when you see that, and as educators, when you see that independence there, it's a genuine, magical moment. But that also leads to something else. Maybe if I can, just thinking when you were talking there about your daughter, and I don't know if you've come across Jo Boaler, have you come across Jo Boaler in maths circles?

Louis (18:27):

Paddy (18:29):
And I was fascinated a number of years ago to read one of Jo Boaler's examples, and if you haven't read Jo, there's some really interesting stuff that she's done. But she took a super simple multiplication. She took 18 times five, and she said, she gave it to her classroom, and the classroom had access to primarily accessible maths, but they had access to digital technology, and they were free to come up with the answer of 18 times five. Now, on the surface, 18 times five, well, that's pretty straightforward, but I guarantee from all our listeners, all of our listeners are going well that's five times 10 plus five times eight. Oh, no, no, it's five times 20, minus. And people are thinking different ways in their head.

And actually what happened in a class of 30, she had 18 different ways to come up with. Now, I couldn't think of 18 different ways, but 18 different ways to come up with an answer to that very simple multiplication. Now, if you take maths and you have accessible maths, and then you have the tools, what are you doing but providing that independence for pupils to explore maths on their own terms? Louis, you know me, I don't like to be told what to do. I'm not great at that. And that was me in the maths classroom. The teacher said, "This was the way to do it. This is the way you'll do it, Paddy, end of discussion." And I'm like, "No, no, no, no, but I think there's a..." And I would need to go and explore and go, "No," or else I would just find a different route that worked for my brain. But accessible maths gives us access to that. And I think that's really,

Louis (19:50):
Yeah, that's too funny. And I hate to bring this back to my other kid now, Paddy, but I promise you I was helping my son who's in a much younger class right now, he's doing fifth grade math. And I promise you, he almost gave me an example that almost just came off your tongue, which was 18 times five. And he is like, "Dad, I have to use the area model to solve." And I'm thinking, I don't remember the area model. So he's taught to only see one way of doing things. But isn't that what's so great about math, right?

Paddy (20:15):

Louis (20:15):
Because there's so many different ways to solve a problem. So anyhow, so let's get back on track here, Paddy. So Science of Reading initiatives in the US is very topical right now. I don't know if you've necessarily heard about that, but when we were articulating this question, I thought this will be interesting for Paddy's perspective is, we also though need to think about having solutions not just for literacy, but for numeracy as well. And we may have touched on this a little bit, but I am curious, because Paddy, I'm not too familiar with this, so I can't wait to hear your answer. Can you tell us more about DfE in the UK, quality descriptors and these new pillars around inclusion for MATs?

Paddy (21:00):
Yeah, so for those of you not aware, an MAT, a Multi-Academy Trust, it's kind of like, for those of you maybe in North America listening, it's kind of like a small district. So it's a small group of schools. It can be 10 schools, it can be a hundred schools, but it's a small group of schools and they have a little bit more independence. But they have, like a district, they have central governance at the top that is responsible for delivering high quality education. And we've had a number of maths projects in the UK, which is aimed at increasing maths in adult level, but then also building better maths at, what we call, primary school level. So that is kind of like five to 11-year-olds, building maths there, which actually connects it to real world and also connects it to, you and I would refer to it maybe differently Louis, but manipulatives and concretes.

But what's happened at the Multi-Academy Trust level is, and I think this is interesting, it's moved beyond maths and is not a maths-specific thing now. And what the DfE, which is our Department for Education here in the UK, has said, "Look, if you're a group of schools, there are four key areas that you must focus on." And there's some pretty obvious ones, high quality teaching and learning, high quality governance, safeguarding of kids. But one of them is of fundamental importance here, which is, they focused very heavily on MATs, and all schools within the MATs, must deliver an accessible and inclusive education for all.

And within that pillar, there are threads there that talk about the importance of accessibility, the importance about removing barriers, the importance of where technology plays in that role. And those are the quality descriptors that those Multi-Academy Trusts are measured on, from a central measurement agency in the UK here. And I think it's just really, really, really of the moment, but also it really sets us up for the future that actually, out of just those four things, one of them is all about accessibility and inclusion.

Louis (23:04):
Oh, wow.

Paddy (23:05):
And nowhere there, Louis, does it say, "Accessibility and inclusion for all subjects except maths." Nowhere does it say, "This is just for text." It says, "Everybody must receive this and they must receive it in this way." And I think it's a sign of the times that we are all having the conversations. If you'd have taken me back five years and said, "We'll be talking about accessible maths." I kind of would've looked at you a little bit and went, "Well." Equatio was in the early days then, Louis, but it was like, is accessible maths a thing? Is it more about digital maths? What is it about? But actually accessible maths is what everybody is talking about because we're all striving for a more inclusive learning environment. And that's really what these pillars do. It helps steer us towards that being a solid foundation of everything we do.

I think I've maybe overused that word, Louis, but I think when you and I are talking about accessibility here, I think we've got to really think long and hard about that word foundation because we've got to look at our resources and go, "Are they accessible?" We've got to look at the stuff we create, "Are they accessible?" Because when we start at the beginning there and we set that foundation, we can build an inclusive classroom a lot easier. We really can. And then with tools like Equatio we can start to support that really easily.

Louis (24:19):
I was going to say, and it seems like that would take a lot more off the plate too, of our instructors and teachers, because they wouldn't have to do maybe perhaps so much adapting for their lessons because that's the foundation, right?

Paddy (24:33):
Yeah. A number of years ago, back in 2019, it became a legal requirement for all public sector bodies in the UK and Europe. We were part of Europe. Now, to be clear to our North American friends, we still sit in the same place beside Europe. We're just not quite part of Europe. But legislatively it means we follow our own rules now in the UK, but it became mandated for any public sector body that any resource that they created or any resource that they had publicized or had on their LMS or they had on their website for download, all of it had to be fully accessible. And that includes maths content. It literally became illegal. It literally became against the law to have something that wasn't accessible. And as harsh as this may seem, that was limited for me to what we call higher ed. So university body, so post 18 education. But I really have a belief that what they're doing is setting the foundation to say, "Guys, this is the way we need to do things. And all content has to be accessible for everybody." And of course, again, includes maths.

So that's exciting because it'll drive people forward to... Just, Louis, what people need to do here is make accessible practice their standard practice. It's as simple as that. This is what you do, it's standard. It's not a special thing you go and do. Because if you set that foundation, then all these tools that we're talking about, Louis, just really come into their own and really start to make a massive difference.
Louis (26:05):
Yeah, interesting and well said. So brilliant, Paddy, this is a really, really good place to kind of put a pin in this discussion for now. But don't worry, Paddy and myself will be back for part two next week where we'll be discussing how digital math instructional materials offer significant time-saving benefits for educators. To our listeners, thanks for listening.

So a quick recap before you go. We gave you one thing to know, which is accessible digital math materials can have a positive impact on the overall quality of math education. We also gave you one thing to think about, what is the role of educators in adopting and integrating these digital tools into their teaching practices to create a more inclusive and efficient math classroom? And lastly, one thing to do, take a look at our digital math page, full of resources on teaching math online to save educators time. Making math or maths more accessible than ever and empower learners to succeed.

So visit us, to learn more. We want to thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please let us know, using the hashtag TexthelpTalks on Twitter, what you thought about part one. Thanks again and make sure you're subscribed to Texthelp Talks so you don't miss the digitization of math in part two.