Dyscalculia: A Comprehensive Guide

William is eighteen years old, and he excels in drama and art. He’s an avid reader and writes poems and short stories in his spare time. However, he is unable to graduate with his senior class because he doesn’t have the required credits in mathematics.

Although he has normal intelligence, William has consistently done poorly in mathematics since primary school. After intensive tutoring and years of practice, he has finally become somewhat competent at basic facts and operations, but he has no idea how or when to apply them. When taking a math test, he simply takes numbers from each problem and inserts them into the algorithms that he memorized when studying for the test.

Like William, many people have problems in learning mathematics. The nature of their problems vary. Some students can master basic facts but can’t do higher mathematics. Some can do higher math but can’t master basics. Some can follow math procedures one day but are unable to follow them the next day. Others may perform mathematical algorithms well in one situation but can’t apply them to new situations. Math disabilities can be very frustrating due to the complexity and variety of problems.

Why math matters

Mathematics plays an important part in our lives, from basic trading at a market stall in Marrakesh or Beijing to the complex algorithms that guide international banking, from working out the time of a journey to see a friend in a nearby town to the time it takes a sub-atomic particle to travel around CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. We use math when we plan a holiday, decide on a mortgage or decorate a room. Good numeracy is essential to us, as parents helping our children learn, as patients understanding health information, as citizens making sense of statistics and economic news.

The effects of math failure during the years of schooling, as well as math illiteracy in adult life, can seriously handicap both daily living and vocational prospects. Low numeracy is a substantial financial cost to governments and personal cost to individuals. A large UK cohort study found that low numeracy was more of a handicap for an individual’s life chances than low literacy: They earn less, spend less, are more likely to be sick, are more likely to be in trouble with the law, and need more help in school (Parsons & Bynner, 2005).

Research by economists, led by Pro Bono Economics, reveals the damaging impact that poor numeracy is having on the UK economy. Their report estimates the cost of outcomes associated with low levels of adult numeracy at around £20.2 billion per year, or about 1.3 percent of the UK’s GDP. In the US, individuals at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels have a higher rate of unemployment and earn lower wages than the national average. Low literacy costs the US at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

Despite the importance of numeracy, dyscalculia has received little attention, and the familiarity of the general public with it as a problem is relatively low. Between 2000 and 2010 the NIH spent $107.2 million funding dyslexia research but only $2.3 million on dyscalculia (Butterworth et al., 2011).

What is dyscalculia?

The math work of a 10-year-old with dyscalculia

Dyscalculia refers to a wide range of persistent and extreme difficulties in math, including weaknesses in understanding the meaning of numbers, and difficulty applying mathematical principles to solve problems. 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.

The term developmental dyscalculia is used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by adults after severe head injuries. Developmental dyscalculia refers to a difficulty acquiring basic arithmetic skills that is not explained by inadequate schooling, emotional instability, or intellectual disability (IQ below 70). Children with developmental dyslexia may perform well in non-numerical academic subjects and may even have superior intelligence.

Some researchers propose that the scientific community should differentiate between primary and secondary developmental dyscalculia. Primary developmental dyscalculia is characterized by a severe deficit in numerical or arithmetic functioning, caused by different underlying biological factors. Secondary developmental dyscalculia denotes individuals whose impaired numerical capacity can be explained entirely by non-numerical impairments, such as attention or working-memory processes (Kaufmann et al., 2013; Price and Ansari, 2013).

An 11-year-old with acalculia

Sometimes the word acalculia is used to refer to a complete inability to use mathematical symbols and the term dyscalculia is reserved for less severe problems in these areas.

Students with pseudo-dyscalculia have severe math anxiety and may even develop math phobia (arithmophobia). Those who have been supported to overcome their math anxiety will potentially be able to function very well in math. Because of their difficulties with math, most dyscalculics have some anxiety about math (Hornigold, 2015).

The terms math learning disability and specific learning disorder with impairment in math are synonyms for dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is sometimes referred to as number dyslexia, dyslexia for numbers, and math dyslexia.

NEXT: Statistics

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Key takeaways

Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.) who has 30+ years’ experience in the LD field.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB) on May 21, 2021.
Next review due: May 21, 2023.

References and sources:

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Badian, N. A. (1999). Persistent arithmetic, reading, or arithmetic and reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia49. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-999-0019-8

Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Butterworth, B., & Yeo, D. (2004). Dyscalculia guidance: Helping pupils with specific learning difficulties in maths. London: Fulton Publishers.

Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D., (2011). Dyscalculia: From brain to education. Science, 332(6033), 1049-1053.

Bynner, J., & Parsons, S. (1997). Does numeracy matter? London: Basic Skills Agency.

Czamara, D., Tiesler, C. M. T., Kohlböck, G., Berdel, D., Hoffmann, B., & Heinrich, J. (2013). Children with ADHD symptoms have a higher risk for reading, spelling and math difficulties in the GINIplus and LISAplus cohort studies. PLOS ONE, 8(5), e63859.

Desoete, A. (2015). Predictive indicators for mathematical learning disabilities/dyscalculia in kindergarten. In S. Chinn (Ed.), The Routledge international handbook of dyscalculia and mathematical learning difficulties (pp. 90-100). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Franklin, D. (2018). Helping your child with language-based learning disabilities. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Gross, J., Hudson, C., & Price, D. (2009). The long term costs of numeracy difficulties. London: Every Child a Chance Trust.

Hallahan, D. P., Kauffman, J., & Lloyd, J. (1985). Introduction to learning disabilities. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hornigold, J. (2015). Dyscalculia pocketbook. Alresford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks.

Kaufmann, L., Mazzocco, M. M., Dowker, A., von Aster, M., Göbel, S. M., Grabner, R. H., et al. (2013). Dyscalculia from a developmental and differential perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(516). 

Landerl, K., Bevan, A., & Butterworth, B. (2004). Developmental dyscalculia and basic numerical capacities: A study of 8-9-year-old students. Cognition, 93, 99-125.

Parsons, S., & Bynner, J. (2005). Does numeracy matter more? London: National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, Institute of Education.

Price, G. R., & Ansari, D. (2013). Dyscalculia: Characteristics, causes, and treatments. Numeracy 6(2).

Shalev, R. S., Auerbach, J., & Gross-Tsur, V. (1995). Developmental dyscalculia: Attentional and behavioral aspects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 1261–1268.