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.
Table of contents:
- What is dyscalculia?
- What is the impact of dyscalculia?
- What are the types of dyscalculia?
- What are the different subtypes of dyslexia?
- Key takeaways
What is dyscalculia?
The terms math learning disability and specific learning disorder with impairment in math are synonyms for 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. It is the most widely used term for disabilities in arithmetic and mathematics.
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.
No one seems to know exactly 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 know, however, that researchers have used other words for a disability in math since the 1800s: arithmetic disability, arithmetic deficit, and so on. The media has been using words like digit dyslexia, number dyslexia, number blindness, and math dyslexia.
What is the impact of dyscalculia?
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.
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 (Hornigold 2015).
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 are the types of dyscalculia?
The term developmental dyscalculia is used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by adults after severe head injuries or as a result of a stroke. This type of dyscalculia is known as acquired dyscalculia.
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).
The word acalculia is often 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).
What are the different subtypes of dyscalculia?
According to the website Dyslexia in Ireland dyscalculia can be broken down into three subtypes:
- Quantitative dyscalculia, a deficit in the skills of counting and calculating.
- Qualitative dyscalculia, a result of difficulties in comprehension of instructions or the failure to master the skills required for an operation. When a child has not mastered the memorization of number facts, he cannot benefit from this stored “verbalizable information about numbers” that is used with prior associations to solve problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and square roots.
- Intermediate dyscalculia involves the inability to operate with symbols, or numbers.
Based on his experience with arithmetic learning problems, Kosc described six subtypes:
- Verbal dyscalculia, which refers to problems in naming the number of things.
- Practognostic dyscalculia, which refers to problems in manipulating things mathematically — for example, comparing objects to determine which is larger.
- Lexical dyscalculia, which refers to problems in reading mathematical symbols, including operation signs (+, – ) and numerals.
- Graphical dyscalculia, which refers to problems in writing mathematical symbols and numerals.
- Ideognostical dyscalculia, which refers to problems in understanding mathematical concepts and relationships.
- Operational dyscalculia, which refers to problems in performing arithmetic operations.
Based on the cognitive difficulties that underpin dyscalculia, Karagiannakis and Cooreman (2015) identified four subtypes: core number, reasoning, memory, and visual-spatial. Dyscalculic students may have difficulty in all or maybe just one or two of these areas.
These subtypes of dyscalculia have not been independently verified, and they are quite difficult to differentiate in students who have arithmetic learning disabilities. Nevertheless, these discussions illustrate the many problems students may have in arithmetic and mathematics.
Edublox offers live online tutoring to students with dyscalculia. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s math learning needs.
There is no general agreement on the precise meaning of the term dyscalculia. Reports of dyscalculia’s prevalence, therefore, vary depending upon the definition and situation. Research suggests that it has the same prevalence as dyslexia (about 6–8% of children) although it is far less widely recognized by parents and educators.
The most generally agreed-upon feature of children with dyscalculia is difficulty in learning and remembering arithmetic facts. The second feature of children with dyscalculia is difficulty in executing calculation procedures, with immature problem-solving strategies, long solution times, and high error rates. There are many other characteristics, symptoms and signs.
Most problems can only be solved if one knows what causes that particular problem. A viable point of departure would thus be to ask: what causes dyscalculia? We investigate genetic influences, cognitive deficits, mathematical skills, and brain differences.
We discuss the most important strategies that need to be applied to help a student overcome a math learning disability. We take a look at the Edublox program that offers online help to students with mild to severe dyscalculia. .
Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the learning disabilities field.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).
References and sources:
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