Understanding Dyscalculia

See also: Apps to Help with Maths

Like dyslexia, dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty. It is defined as a persistent difficulty in understanding numbers, and can lead to a wide range of problems with mathematics. A difficulty is generally identified because it is age-inappropriate—in other words, ‘most’ other people of the same age do not have that issue.

There are a wide range of causes of difficulties with maths. Dyscalculia is at the severe end of the spectrum of these difficulties. It can also be associated with other issues, such as other specific learning difficulties, anxiety about maths, and some medical conditions. This page explains more about this condition.

What is Dyscalculia—and What Isn’t?

Dyscalculia affects around 6% of people—a similar number to dyslexia. However, far less is known about it.

Defining Dyscalculia

“Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities.”

British Dyslexia Association

The British Dyslexia Association suggests that research on dyscalculia is around 30 years behind that on dyslexia. This leaves quite a big hole in our understanding, especially about its causes. It is thought to be connected to the function of two key parts of the brain: the left intraparietal sulcus, which deals with numbers, and the front lobe, which deals with reasoning.

There is often a genetic component to dyscalculia, as with several other specific learning difficulties and neurodevelopmental disorders. However, it can also be associated with a brain injury: for example, it is connected to developmental disorders such as foetal alcohol syndrome.

The situation is also complicated because other conditions and experiences may also cause problems understanding numbers or learning maths (see box).

Dyscalculia—or Dyslexia?

Difficulties with mathematics are not necessarily dyscalculia.

For example, the British Dyslexia Association estimates that around 60% of people with dyslexia will also have trouble with maths. Problems with maths may also be associated with a traumatic learning experience, or school absence.

Characteristics and Signs of Dyscalculia

Identifying dyscalculia is therefore not easy. However, there are some signs that can be indicative. These include:

  • Difficulties with maths that have been going on for a long time—usually right back to the first introduction of numbers;

  • The problems are associated with arithmetic (relatively simple number operations such as addition or subtraction) but not necessarily with concepts like geometry or algebra;

  • No trouble with other subjects like English, or any subjects that do not involve numbers;

  • No intuitive understanding of numbers or simple concepts around numbers (for example, the idea that multiplication is the same as repeated addition);

  • Trouble understanding number bonds and relationships (the idea that any number can be made up in several different ways—for example, that 10 can be 6+4, two 5s, or 12−2);

  • Trouble understanding the size of numbers, for example, what things should cost;

  • Trouble knowing how many items are in a set without counting them all;

  • Difficulties spotting patterns in numbers and drawing generalisations about number relationships.

People with dyscalculia tend to follow procedures without really understanding them at all. They may therefore be unable to apply a procedure to a slightly different situation.

By contrast, people with dyslexia tend to have trouble with particular areas of maths such as long division or multiplication, multi-step problems, or questions containing lots of words or information. They may also struggle to understand place value or symbols such as the ‘equals’ sign (=). However, they will often have problems with other subjects, such as English, and usually don’t have any problem understanding numbers themselves. They will be unlikely to confuse, say, 5 and 15.

The Effect of Dyscalculia

It is fair to say that most people use very little advanced maths in their everyday lives. Most of us don’t need algebra on a routine basis.

However, basic arithmetic and numbers are all around us (and our page on Real-World Maths provides some examples of this).

We need to be able to budget effectively. We need to be able to work out how long it will take us to travel somewhere, and to read a bus or train timetable.

All these are extremely difficult for someone with dyscalculia.

Diagnosis and Support for Dyscalculia

The British Dyslexia Association emphasises the importance of early identification of dyscalculia.

It states that if this happens, then early intervention can help to build better number awareness. This in turn supports better understanding of the number system.

Anyone with experience in maths teaching/learning, and maths learning difficulties, can carry out an informal assessment for dyscalculia. An informal assessment simply aims to identify the broad areas of difficulty, so that additional support and help can be provided.

A formal diagnostic assessment should only be carried out by a qualified assessor.

The British Dyslexia Association is clear that a qualification in assessing dyslexia is insufficient to assess dyscalculia.

Early intervention is important, because maths is a subject that builds steadily on early learning. If the early learning is inadequate or inappropriate, then a child will not develop a basic understanding of key concepts. They will then struggle to build on that later.

The British Dyslexia Association suggests that children with dyscalculia should be helped to develop a picture of each number—for example, like those on the faces of dice. They need to be able to associate the number itself with its size and the symbol for that number. They also need to understand that numbers are flexible, and can be ‘made’ in different ways. This can be seen as equivalent to building up words from sounds.

It is generally a good idea to use visual materials to build concepts in maths, especially for younger children. This helps them to grasp the concepts more clearly, and understand what they are doing. It is particularly important to be sure that children have properly understood the meaning of symbols.

Case study: Misunderstanding symbols

James was working through a practice paper for his 11+ exam, and brought a question to his mother for help.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “They’ve given me the answer already.”

His mother looked at the question. It said:

15 + 𝥄 = 32

“What do you mean, they’ve given you the answer?” she asked cautiously.

“Look!” James responded. “The answer’s 32.”

“Hm,” said his mother. “What do you think that symbol means, with the two lines one above the other?”

“Is the answer,” James responded confidently.

It took more than an hour with several piles of stones and beads before James understood the meaning of “equals”, and the concept of an equation. It is fair to say that his mother was unimpressed by the several years of maths teaching and teachers who had failed to identify this basic issue.

A Final Thought

Like other specific learning difficulties, dyscalculia can make life harder. However, with early diagnosis and intervention, children can learn good coping strategies.

Perhaps, given the relatively basic nature of the changes that can be made to maths teaching to support people with dyscalculia, we should be asking ourselves why so many adults have such poor numeracy skills generally—and how maths teaching could be improved for everyone.