Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) pertaining to numeracy. Some people refer to dyscalculia as ‘dyslexia for maths’ but this is not the whole story. A child with dyscalculia may present with good verbal skills and be an innovative thinker but be completely lost when trying to engage in anything to do with numbers, quantities and time. This is a big problem because numbers are everywhere and are a huge part of everyday life.
A child with dyscalculia will struggle with number sense, so, their ability to subitise- that is to intuitively identify a group of five items or fewer- will be impeded. They will likely have to count the items and, even then, may make a mistake. The ability of a child with dyscalculia to differentiate between larger or smaller groups of objects (non-symbolic magnitude comparison) and the value represented by written digits (symbolic magnitude comparison) will be severely hampered. Ordering, in terms of ‘how many’ compared to a group with similar properties (cardinal) and position in relation to an item or number (ordinal) will be a huge challenge for a dyscalculic brain to process.
Consider the morning routine for a child with dyscalculia and just how much numeracy is involved, even before they get to school- setting an alarm to get up on time, putting enough cereal in a bowl for breakfast, not spending too long getting ready (people with dyscalculia can struggle enormously with the concept of time), catching the right bus at the right time, remembering the combination number of a locker or bike lock, worrying that they don’t have enough money for lunch…sadly, the list goes on.
If a child struggles to retain basic number facts such as number bonds to 10 and number patterns e.g., the 2, 5 and 10 times tables; if they struggle to tell the time or use money and if they have weak working memory skills and difficulties with problem solving, it could be that they are dyscalculic.
Because dyscalculia is a neurodevelopmental condition, children will never ‘grow out of it’. Its prevalence is estimated to be between five and seven percent of the population, meaning that, averagely, at least one child in every class has a dyscalculic profile. This, in turn, means that every teacher is likely to be a teacher of child(ren) with dyscalculia and that every school has dyscalculic pupils.
Considering the needs of children with dyscalculia and how they can best be supported is vital and adopting an ‘assess, plan, do, review’ (APDR) approach that takes on board pupil voice is best practice:
- Can the child subitise small quantities of objects?
- Do they have one to one correspondence when counting a group of items?
- Can they tell which of two groups of items has the most/least items?
- Can they order sequential and non-sequential written numbers?
- Can they count from 0 to 20 and back?
- Can they count in twos, fives and tens (again, up and back)?
- Are they able to tell the time, handle money and differentiate between left and right?
- Useful assessment tools can be found in ‘More Trouble with Maths’ by Steve Chinn, ‘BEAM Diagnostic Interviews in Number Sense’ by Hazel Denvir and Tamara Bibby and ‘The Dyscalculia Assessment’ by Jane Emerson and Patricia Babtie. In addition, Steve Chinn’s ‘The Dyscalculia Checklist’ could be helpful.
- Always start the teaching programme with what the child already knows. This will mean planning work by beginning where the child is rather than where age related expectations might say they should be.
- Remember that numeracy skills are hierarchical- gaps towards the beginning of this hierarchy need to be closed first, in order to further build knowledge and understanding.
- Make it real- use concrete resources and examples. Multi-sensory experiences are vital and playing games will help to make it fun. It is worth remembering that first learning experiences of new topics become dominant brain entries, therefore the more fun/ less pressure the better!
- Provide supportive resources that reduce memory load.
- Link concrete experiences to pictorial representations (diagrams, arrays, bar models etc.) as well as symbols.
- Encourage use of mathematical language as much as possible. Use one word per concept per session e.g., for subtraction, use take-away or minus or subtract.
- Give lots of opportunities for pre-teaching, over-learning and practise.
- Talk to the child about what they know and their next steps.
- Encourage them to scale how they feel about different aspects of their learning in numeracy at the beginning and end of a session.
- Reassess the aspects of numeracy covered by the work you have done with the child- have gaps in knowledge and understanding been closed?
- Revisit a few weeks later to assess longevity of impact. Has the new learning been retained?
Historically, dyscalculia has been the subject of significantly fewer research papers than dyslexia and has received less attention in general. The balance is beginning to be redressed and the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) and the SpLD Assessment Standards Committee (SASC) agreed an official definition of dyscalculia in 2019.
Co-occurrence of dyscalculia with other SpLDs e.g., dyslexia and ADHD appear to be the rule rather than the exception. Whilst it is possible for a child to be diagnosed with dyscalculia alone, there are often shared risk factors with other conditions and more than one diagnosis is the result. It is vital to look at the whole child and the impact of a range of factors on their learning.
Some recommended resources include:
The Dyscalculia Network is the only specialist network of dyscalculia professionals and has the most comprehensive dyscalculia tutor index in the UK. The Dyscalculia Network provides information, training and resources for adults, children, teachers and parents.
How to Teach Maths by Steve Chinn. Dr. Chinn is a visiting professor at the University of Derby, with over 40 years of experience working with children with SpLD, particularly dyscalculia and dyslexia.
Dr. Jo Boaler’s youcubed.org is an inspirational, research-based website that aims to empower teachers to transform maths teaching. Dr. Boaler is Professor of Education at Stanford University. There are some excellent videos that could be shared with children. This video, featuring Dr. Boaler, discusses creative, flexible mathematics and the advantage of a growth mindset and learning from struggle and making mistakes.
My world without numbers is a compelling TEDx Talk by Line Rothmann, a graduate from the creative business and design school Kaospilot, Aarhus, Denmark, who explains what it is like to be dyscalculic in a world full of numbers.
Sarah Jones is a Learning and Behaviour Advisory Team (LBAT) Advisory Teacher. Sarah holds a P.G. Cert in Dyscalculia Research and Practice from the University of Chester.