It’s only in recent years that the term ‘dyscalculia’ has become more commonly known. Perceptions as to what it is remain wide-ranging, from ‘dyslexia for numbers’ to ‘being really bad at math.’
Research into dyscalculia is very much in its infancy. We are in a similar position now to where we were with dyslexia in the late 1990s, when people questioned its very existence.
Having dyscalculia can lead to social isolation as a result of an inability to be at the right place at the right time or to understand the rules and scoring systems of games and sports. Some adults with dyscalculia never learn to drive because of the numerical demands of driving. Personal finances and budgeting are often difficult for people with dyscalculia, and research shows that adults with low numeracy earn significantly less than adults with average or high numeracy (Hornigold 2015).
Coined in the mid-20th century, the word dyscalculia has both Greek and Latin origins: the Greek prefix ‘dys’ means ‘badly’, while ‘calculia’, from the Latin ‘calculare’, means to count. Literally, dyscalculia means to count badly; the reality is much more complex.
Dyscalculia symptoms include:
- Poor understanding of the signs +, -, ÷ and x, or may confuse these mathematical symbols.
- Difficulty with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division or may find it difficult to understand the words “plus,” “add,” “add-together.”
- Immature strategies such as counting all instead of counting on. The child may workout 137 + 78 by drawing 137 dots and then 78 dots and then counting them all.
- Difficulty with times tables.
- Poor mental arithmetic skills.
- The word ‘subitize’ comes from Latin meaning ‘sudden’. It refers to the ability to instantly identify the number of objects in a set without counting. Most people can subitize up to six or seven objects. A child with dyscalculia may find this very hard and may need to count even small numbers of objects. For example, if they are presented with two objects they may count the objects rather than just know that there are two.
- May have trouble even with a calculator due to difficulties in the process of feeding in variables.
- Inability to notice patterns. The world of math is full of patterns and the ability to see, predict and continue patterns is a key math skill. Take the sequence of the 5 x table for example: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 etc. This is a very clear pattern but a student with dyscalculia may not readily spot it.
- Inability to generalize. Being able to generalize makes life so much simpler in math, but a dyscalculic student may find this very hard. They might not see that knowing that 3 + 4 = 7 means they also know that 30 + 40 = 70, or even that 3 inches + 4 inches = 7 inches.
- May reverse or transpose numbers for example 63 for 36, or 785 for 875.
- Difficulty with conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time.
- Difficulty with everyday tasks like checking change.
- Difficulty keeping score during games.
- Inability to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences.
- Extreme cases may lead to a phobia of mathematics and mathematical devices.
Dyscalculia may have some serious implications for children if no intervention is provided. Primarily, dyscalculia may impinge on the emotional well-being of students. In a focus group carried out by Bevan and Butterworth (2007) with nine children with dyscalculia, many negative feelings were expressed related to the children’s constant failure in mathematics. The children reported that they felt left out, blamed themselves for not knowing how to solve a task, cried, as well as felt “horrible” and “stupid.” In the long-term, math disabilities may negatively impact job opportunities and prospects in the workplace — even more than literacy difficulties (Bynner & Parsons, 1997).
In Part 3 of this article we’ll explore the causes of dyscalculia.
Bevan, A., & Butterworth, B. (2007). The responses to maths disabilities in the classroom. Retrieved on April 17, 2020 from
Bynner, J., & Parsons, S. (1997). Does numeracy matter? London: Basic Skills Agency.
Hornigold, J. (2015). Dyscalculia pocketbook. Alresford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks.