Understanding Dyscalculia

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia…you will have heard of it and tried to pronounce it but what is it?

What is it?

There is no clear definition of dyscalculia but it is commonly referred to as number blindness, maths dyslexia, or a maths deficit disorder.

The word dyscalculia comes from Greek and Latin meaning ‘counting badly’ but it goes much deeper than that and includes difficulties stretching from spatial awareness to understanding shapes.

Jane Emerson is an expert in dyscalculia and in the following video she explains more:

Research has shown that dyscalculia is a specific learning disability or condition that affects a person’s ability to acquire arithmetical skills, make sense of maths concepts, and perform accurate and fluent calculations. Even when dyscalculic learners use a correct method or produce a correct answer they may do so mechanistically without understanding or confidence.

For many learners dyscalculia makes maths a foggy and fuzzy experience riddled with anxieties and could lead to a phobia of maths.

Dyscalculia has varying levels of severity and often co-occurs alongside other specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD/ADD and with several genetic disorders including fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome and Turner’s syndrome.

It is estimated that around 3-6 per cent of the UK population are affected by dyscalculia but this is likely to be much higher because of the lack of research into it. The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) say that ‘mathematical learning difficulties’ are particularly widespread and could affect as much as ¼ of the population.

What are the signs?

Dyscalculia isn’t just one thing but represents a spectrum of difficulties. These include:

  • learning to count
  • poor working memory
  • counting backwards and reversing a sequence
  • understanding place value
  • recognising number symbols
  • mental arithmetic
  • connecting a number to a real-life situation, e.g. knowing that ‘5’ can apply to any group that has three things in it – 5 sweets, 5 teddies etc.
  • remembering numbers and number sequences
  • recognising patterns and sorting items by size, shape or colour
  • writing numbers clearly or placing them in the correct order or appropriate column
  • understanding maths vocabulary such as ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’
  • learning and recalling number facts
  • using rules and procedures, e.g. they may know that 9 + 3 = 12 but not realise that 3 + 9 = 12
  • connecting numbers and symbols, e.g. seeing that the words ten, hundred and thousand and equate to 10, 100 and 1000
  • understanding measures such as telling the time, handling money, reading scales (temperature, mass, speed)
  • telling left from right and has a poor sense of direction
  • identifying symbols such as +, -, x, ÷ and using them correctly
  • grasping information shown on graphs and charts

How is it diagnosed?

There are many reasons why a child may be finding maths difficult that don’t add up to dyscalculia but there are some basic areas that may indicate a dyscalculic tendency.

There is no prescribed diagnostic test explicitly for dyscalculia but screening tests that focus on arithmetic, number processing, working memory, spatial skills, abstract reasoning, speed of visual processing will provide clues to support a diagnosis. One book you may find useful though is Jane Emerson and Patricia Babtie’s resource The Dyscalculia Assessment.

How can we help?

Dyscalculia is not something that can be ‘cured’ and shouldn’t be approached as an illness and treated with medication. It is a need and without early intervention dyscalculia can soon become a special need. As maths is a developmental subject any anxieties or difficulties can easily arrest progress and act as roadblocks.

Unlike dyslexia, very little research exists about how to help dyscalculic pupils but there are some common strategies that teachers use to help support children in their day-to-day encounters with maths:

  • Use concrete examples that connect maths to real life e.g. hands-on sorting activities
  • Use plenty of visual aids and manipulatives when solving problems
  • Use apps that focus on basic skills and adapt to learning needs, e.g. DoodleMaths
  • Break lessons into chunks and assigning manageable amounts of work
  • Review a recently learned skill before moving on to a new one
  • Talk through the problem-solving process
  • Do maths problems on graph paper to keep the numbers in line
  • Allow extra time to complete work
  • List the steps for multi-step problems

For some very practical, simple and straightforward ideas then take a look at Patricia Babtie’s new book 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Numeracy Difficulties and Dyscalculia.

You might also find The Dyscalculia Toolkit by Ronit Bird helpful too as this supports primary and secondary learners as well as Steve Chinn’s excellent resource Maths learning difficulties, dyslexia and dyscalculia.

Want to learn more?

If you are keen to expand your CPD in this area then why not sign up for a numeracy and dyscalculia course with Dyslexia Action who offer a range of units all of which can be done online and are accredited by the CPD Standards Office.

To find out more about accredited dyscalculia courses then visit The British Dyslexia Association.

Take a look at Policy, Research, Identification and Intervention for Maths Learning Difficulties and Dyscalculia, a general information sheet produced by BDA Dyscalculia Committee.


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