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Math Dyslexia: When Smart Kids Struggle with Math

Math dyslexia index
Doing poorly in school traumatizes children. Parents who watch their children struggle with schoolwork daily understand this better than anyone.

But even parents may not realize just how lasting this trauma can be. Panicker and Chelliah (2016) concluded that children with learning disabilities exhibit chronically elevated stress levels, and that stress is disruptive to brain development and learning. The trauma of doing poorly at school frequently results in negative thoughts that can be deep and lasting (Sapolsky, 2004). If left unchanged, a negative self-image can detrimentally impact a child’s life well beyond school.

Dyslexia is a well-known learning disorder that affects your ability to read, spell, write, and speak. Although lesser known than dyslexia, math dyslexia — better known as dyscalculia — is equally common and can be a debilitating problem in school and later life. The term “dyscalculia” comes from Greek and Latin and means “counting badly.” The prefix “dys-” comes from Greek and means “badly.” The root “calculia” comes from the Latin “calculare,” which means “to count.”

Table of contents:
  • What is math dyslexia?
  • How common is math dyslexia?
  • What are the symptoms of math dyslexia?
  • What causes math dyslexia?
  • How can children with math dyslexia be helped?
  • How can Edublox help?

  • What is math dyslexia?

    Example of math dysleia
    The math work of a 9-year-old with dyscalculia.

    Math dyslexia — better known as dyscalculia — is not the same as the ordinary experience of “being bad at math.” Many people may find trigonometry difficult. Dyscalculics may be unable to solve simple problems such as 7+2 or 5×3.

    Math dyslexia — or 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.

    The term developmental dyscalculia may be used to distinguish the problem in children and youth from similar problems experienced by adults after severe head injuries. Developmental dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty manifested by failure to achieve adequate proficiency in arithmetic despite normal intelligence, sufficient scholastic opportunities, emotional stability, and sufficient motivation.

    How common is math dyslexia?

    Many people assume that the term learning disability refers to a reading disability. One often hears the saying, “A learning problem is a reading problem.” This, however, is not true. Among students classified as learning disabled, arithmetic difficulties are as prevalent as reading problems. McLeod and Crump found that about one-half of students with learning disabilities require supplemental work in mathematics.

    According to the British Dyslexia Association, math dyslexia 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. Best estimates indicate that somewhere between 3% and 6% of the population are affected with dyscalculia only — i.e. people who only have difficulties with math but have good or even excellent performance in other areas of learning.

    >>>>> Learn more about dyscalculia statistics

    What are the symptoms of math dyslexia?

    We can easily perceive the difference between two and three items through subitizing. But as the number of items increases, we resort to counting to arrive at an accurate total (Sousa, 2015).

    Poor number sense is a core deficit of math dyslexia. Number sense refers to a person’s ability to use and understand numbers.

    Another core deficit is poor subitizing. 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 math dyslexia 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.

    Other 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.
    • Difficulty with conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time.
    • Difficulty with everyday tasks like checking change.
    • 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.

    >>>>> Learn more about dyscalculia characteristics, symptoms and signs

    What causes math dyslexia?

    If one twin has dyscalculia there is a 58% likelihood that his/her identical twin and a 39% chance that a non-identical twin will also be dyscalculic.

    While the environment plays a role — poor teaching or environmental deprivation, for example — there is strong evidence for a genetic basis. For example, if one twin has dyscalculia there is a 58% likelihood that his or her identical twin and a 39% chance that a non-identical twin will also be dyscalculic. The link also exists between dyscalculics’ parents and siblings: around half of all the first-degree family members of a dyscalculic also have dyscalculia (mothers, 67%; fathers, 41%; brothers, 53%; sisters, 52%), and 43% of the second-degree relatives. This prevalence is around tenfold higher than expected for the general population. However, there are no gender differences (Kadosh & Walsh, 2007). 

    Then again, although some causes of math dyslexia have a genetic origin, cognition mediates brain-behavior relationships and therefore offers a sufficient level of explanation for the development of principled interventions. We thus need to understand the cognitive difficulties that underpin math failure, regardless of whether their origin is constitutional or environmental (Elliott & Grigorenko, 2014).

    Mathematics consists of three aspects

    • Foundational skills:

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

    Visual perception refers to the process of interpreting and organizing visual information. Visual perception 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.”

    Szűcs and team (2013) 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 math dyslexia showed poor visuospatial memory performance. For example, they performed poorly when they had to remember the locations of items in a spatial grid.

    Working memory difficulties have also been associated with developmental dyscalculia. Geary (1993) suggests that poor working memory resources not only lead to difficulty in executing calculation procedures, but may also affect the learning of arithmetic facts.

    • Mathematical skills:

    There are many things in mathematics that the learner must learn to do, like, for example, the skills of counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value, fractions, understanding money, 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 the learner must know, not things they must know how to do. A child, who does not know what a sphere is, will have to guess when confronted by twelve objects and the question, “Which of the above objects have the same shape as a sphere?”

    >>>>> Learn more about dyscalculia causes

    How can children with math dyslexia be helped?

    Early intervention is essential to minimize the impact a learning disability can have on your child. If you recognize that your child is struggling with the spoken or written word, or with mathematics, no matter how old they are, you should intervene as soon as possible.

    The following steps should be followed in math dyslexia interventions:.  

    • Intervention step 1

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

    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 visual discrimination of forms and/or visual discrimination of position in space. A child who has a poor sense of direction (i.e., north, south, east, and west) may have a problem with visual discrimination of position in space, etc.

    • Intervention step 2
    Learning is a stratified process. Certain skills have to be mastered before subsequent skills can be learned.

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

    To be able to subtract, a child must also learn to count backward. Thereafter, skip counting should be introduced. Skip counting is important in the development of fluency in calculations, number sense and is the basis of multiplication and division. It is also important to help students move from calculating by counting by ones to using number facts. For example, instead of working out 12 + 4 by counting 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, students can immediately add 4, or possibly add 2 twice. This transition to using fluent number facts is key to success throughout school.

    • Intervention step 3.

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

    >>>>> Learn more about dyscalculia treatment and intervention

    How can Edublox help?

    Edublox Online Tutor is an online platform that houses a range of products and services to improve various aspects of learning. Edublox’s math help consists of Development Tutor and Live Tutor and aims at

    • addressing the underlying shortcomings that interfere with math performance, such as poor visuospatial memory and logical thinking;
    • teaching math skills in a sequential fashion, such as counting and skip counting, adding and subtracting, multiplication and division, applying place value, fractions, understanding money, reading time, etc.;
    • and math knowledge.

    In this video, Sandy tells about her daughter Amy, who was diagnosed with dyscalculia and dyslexia. Sandy shares how Edublox has helped to fill in the holes that Amy was missing: working memory, number sense, understanding price tags, and more.


    The bottom line

    The only solution for a problem like math dyslexia or dyscalculia is to address the causes. Until we have done that, the child will continue to struggle. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s math learning needs.


    Key takeaways

    Math dyslexia infographic

    Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities.
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Zelda Strydom (MBChB).

    References and sources:

    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.

    Elliott, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Geary, D. C. (1993). Mathematical disabilities: Cognition, neuropsychological and genetic components. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 345–362.

    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.

    Kadosh, R. C., & Walsh, V. (2007). Dyscalculia. Current Biology, 17(22).

    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).

    Kulp, M. T. et al. (2004). Are visual perceptual skills related to mathematics ability in second through sixth grade children? Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, 26, 44-51.

    Panicker, A., & Chelliah, A. (2016). Resilience and stress in children and adolescents with specific learning disability. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25, 17–23.

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

    McLeod, T., & Crump, W. (1978). The relationship of visuospatial skills and verbal ability to learning disabilities in mathematics. Journal of Learning Disabilities4, 237–241.

    Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: The acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping, 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

    Sousa, D. A. (2015). How the brain learns mathematics, 2nd ed. California: Corwin Press.

    Szucs, D., Devine, A., Soltesz, F., Nobes, A., & Gabriel, F. (2013). Developmental dyscalculia is related to visuo-spatial memory and inhibition impairment. Cortex49(10), 2674-2688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2013.06.007