Dyscalculia: What It Is and What To Do

Lots of kids struggle with math, but for some the difficulties go beyond a little bit of frustration. They may do well in other subjects, yet have low math test scores, poor comprehension of math symbols, struggle with memorizing and organizing numbers, and have difficulty telling time or trouble with counting.

The term dyscalculia — from the Greek ‘dys’ and Latin ‘calculia’ — means to count badly, and is the most widely used term for disabilities in arithmetic and mathematics. Compared to other learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia has received little attention, and the familiarity of the general public with it as a problem is relatively low. Dyscalculia usually refers to a specific developmental problem (hence developmental dyscalculia) while a related deficit, acalculia — meaning not to (a) count (calculia) — is acquired later in life as a result of neurological damage caused, for example, by a stroke.

What are the symptoms?

Dyscalculia could be compared to having dyslexia with numbers instead of letters. 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.”
  • Poor mental arithmetic skills.
  • May have trouble even with a calculator due to difficulties in the process of feeding in variables.
  • May reverse or transpose numbers for example 63 for 36, or 785 for 875.
  • Many children have difficulty in learning to tell the time, but this can persist in learners with dyscalculia. They can also have difficulty with appreciating the passage of time. So they may not be able to tell whether one minute or one hour has passed.
  • Money can be a severe difficulty and often stems from a lack of understanding of place value.
  • Difficulty keeping score during games.
  • Inability to comprehend financial planning or budgeting, sometimes even at a basic level, for example, estimating the cost of the items in a shopping basket or balancing a checkbook.
  • Inability to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae, and sequences.
  • May have a poor sense of direction (i.e., north, south, east, and west), potentially even with a compass.
  • May have difficulty mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance (e.g., whether something is 10 or 20 feet away).
  • Extreme cases may lead to a phobia of mathematics and mathematical devices.
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How long have people been aware of dyscalculia?

No one seems to know when the word “dyscalculia” came to life — the earliest we have come across is an advertisement in The New York Times from May 1968 (see below). We do, however, know that researchers have used other words for what they found to be some sort of disability in math (which they already found in the 1800s): arithmetic disability, arithmetic deficit, mathematical disability, and so on. The media has been using words like digit dyslexia, number blindness and the obvious math dyslexia.
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NY Times

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How prevalent is this problem?

It is thought that around 6% of the population have dyscalculia, a similar percentage to that for dyslexia. Given that this is roughly 1 in 20 people, you are likely to find at least one student with dyscalculia in every classroom, with girls and boys being affected equally.

According to the British Dyslexia Association, dyscalculia and dyslexia occur both independently of each other and together. Research suggests that 40-50% of dyslexics show no signs of dyscalculia. They perform at least as well in math as other children, with about 10% achieving at a higher level. The remaining 50-60% do have difficulties with math.

What is the consequence of dyscalculia for one’s life?

The consequences of poor numeracy in today’s world are significant and long-lasting: initial problems in school subjects that require math later translate into reduced employment opportunities. Not surprisingly then, poor numerical abilities correlate with an adult’s economic and social status and psychological well-being.

What causes dyscalculia?

Successful intervention is dependent on finding the cause or causes of a problem. Most problems can only be solved if one knows their causes. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during their long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, “What causes dyscalculia?”

Mathematics is a subject that consists of three aspects:

Foundational skills

Research has shown that visual perception, visual memory, visual-spatial memory, and logical thinking (which makes problem solving possible) are important foundational skills of math.

One hundred seventy-one children with a mean age of 10.08 years participated in a study by Marjean Kulp et al. This study, conducted at the Ohio State University College of Optometry was designed to determine whether or not performance on tests of visual perception could predict the children with poor current achievement in mathematics.

Visual perception refers to the process of interpreting and organizing visual information. Visual perceptual skill is often subdivided into areas such as visual discrimination and visual memory. Visual discrimination involves the ability to attend to and identify a figure’s distinguishing features and details, such as shape, orientation, color and size. Visual memory refers to the ability to remember a visual image.

Kulp et al. concluded: “poor visual perceptual ability is significantly related to poor achievement in mathematics, even when controlling for verbal cognitive ability. Therefore, visual perceptual ability, and particularly visual memory, should be considered to be amongst the skills that are significantly related to mathematics achievement.”

A study by Dr. Dénes Szűcs and team from the University of Cambridge, UK set out to compare various potential theories of dyscalculia in more than a thousand 9-year-old children.

The researchers found that children with dyscalculia showed poor visual-spatial memory performance. For example, they performed poorly when they had to remember the locations of items in a spatial grid. In addition, dyscalculic children’s ability to resist distraction from irrelevant information was also weak. For example, on a task where they had to choose which of two animals was larger in real life they performed poorly when the real-life larger animal was smaller in its display size.

The findings challenge the notion that dyscalculia is characterized by problems with a specialized ‘number sense’ because this number sense was intact in this sample of children with dyscalculia.

Mathematical skills

There are many things in mathematics that students must learn to do, like, for example, the skills of counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value and fractions, and reading time.

Knowledge

There is much in math that one simply has to know and therefore has to learn, for example many terms, definitions, symbols, theorems and axioms. These are all things that students must know, not things that they must know how to do.

How can children with dyscalculia be helped?

It should also be noted that learning is a stratified process. Certain skills have to be mastered first, before it becomes possible to master subsequent skills.

In order to be a basketball player, a person first has to master the foundational skills, e.g. passing, dribbling, defense, and shooting. In the same way, in order to do math, a child first has to learn the foundational skills of math, like visual perception and visual memory. The child who confuses the signs +, -, ÷ and ×, may have a problem with form discrimination, while a child with a poor sense of direction (i.e., north, south, east, and west), may have a problem with orientation, etc. Both form discrimination and directionality are visual perceptual skills.

The second step would be to master mathematical skills, which must be done in a sequential fashion. One has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. The child must learn to count first, before it becomes possible for him to learn to add and subtract.

The third step would be to ensure that a learner catches up on the knowledge aspect of math.

Edublox’s math help aims at

  • addressing the underlying shortcomings that interfere with math performance, such as visual perceptual deficits and poor visual-spatial memory;
  • teaching math skills in a sequential fashion, such as counting and skip counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value and fractions, reading time etc.; as well as
  • math knowledge.
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What practical advice can you offer to parents?

Prevention is better than cure. Make sure that your child has the tools for learning. However, also know that it is never too late to overcome a learning difficulty — even a severe learning difficulty. This includes dyscalculia.

Key takeaways

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