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Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty affecting the normal acquisition of arithmetic skills. It usually co-occurs with other specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia.

As with all specific learning difficulties, there are elements of cognition and memory that are different in children with dyscalculia, but it is characterised as a difficulty with mathematics, not commensurate with the child’s age and not due to lack of educational opportunities. It occurs in three to six per cent of the population and is as common in girls as boys.

Although dyscalculia is a neurological disorder and independent of intelligence, poor teaching and environmental deprivation can also have a part to play.

The American Psychiatric Association describes it as follows:

Developmental Dyscalculia (DD) is a specific learning disorder that is characterised by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age and must not be caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.

So, dyscalculia could be described as a difficulty in the brain with the whole concept of numbers and how they relate to one another. At its extreme, acalculia, it means an inability even to count.

There isn't a single reason why many people fail to master maths, and academic consensus suggests that, despite some shocking levels of numeracy, only three to six per cent of pupils are dyscalculic.

This specific learning difficulty is only just becoming recognised in mainstream education, perhaps as a result of the continuing bad press for GCSE maths.

An early indicator is the persistent use of counting in ones rather than developing a recall of basic facts and relationships between numbers.

The first number test on the Butterworth Dyscalculia Screener is for subitising – that is, looking for a sense of what numbers are worth by testing the ability to look at a random cluster of dots and know how many there are without counting.

A later test examines how quickly and accurately children find the answers to basic addition sums such as 4 + 7. If children still count, they are likely to be slow and inaccurate. At a very basic level of skill development they will count all of the 4 + 7, rather than start at 4 (or better still at 7). Relying entirely on counting for addition and subtraction is a severe handicap in terms of speed and accuracy, the more so when trying to use it for bigger numbers and tasks such as multiplication and division.

Often a child’s page is covered in endless tally marks, and frequently these are just lined up, with no attempt at grouping. If you show them patterns of dots or groups, say tally groups of 5, they still prefer to see lines of individual markers.

Moving on from one-by-one counting to grouped tallies is just the beginning. Skill in numeracy requires the ability to recognise and use relationships in all numbers, such as seeing 9 as one less than 10; 6 + 5 as 5 + 5 + 1; counting on in twos, tens, fives, especially if the pattern isn’t the basic one of 10, 20, 30 ... but 13, 23, 33, 43...; to see the relationship between the four operations (+ x – and ÷); to see patterns and relationships in numbers and be able to manipulate them.

Early indicators of dyscalculia include some or all of:

  • A difficulty in recognising ‘how many’ when looking at a small group of objects.
  • An over-reliance on counting to arrive at number facts and answers.
  • A persistent difficulty in recalling basic facts (addition facts when younger, multiplication facts when older).
  • A problem recognising the symbols of maths (in giving them the right name and in knowing what they mean).
  • Difficulties with the vocabulary and the language of maths.
  • Working at a slow speed.
  • A distinctly lower level of achievement than in other subjects and in comparison with their peers.
  • An avoidance of maths and lack of confidence with maths tasks.
  • Anxieties around anything mathematical.
  • Awareness of money values.
  • Poor mental arithmetic skills and/or poor written arithmetic skills.
  • Persistence of the difficulties despite lots of help.

Things you can do to help

  • Never make the problem an 'issue'.
  • Don't say, "Never mind, I could never do maths, either."
  • Practice in low-stress ways, and a little at any one time. 
  • Make your expectations realistic. 
  • Have lots of small targets rather than a few big targets.
  • Look for improvement, not perfection. 
  • Don't stick with one target, move around a little, but keep revisiting previous work. 
  • Negotiate with the school to get better understanding for your child.

Things schools can do to help

  • Make learning multi-sensory. Use equipment, apparatus, visual aids, etc.
  • Make maths practical and where possible related to everyday experiences/the world.
  • Link facts and learning, so the child has an anchor fact(s) to return to.
  • Get the student to explain how they have come to an answer, whether right or wrong. This helps to understand thought processes, and to identify if, and where, these are breaking down. 
  • Encourage children to explain to themselves and others how they have done a task. 
  • Explain concepts carefully. Get the child to develop their understanding by exploring new subject matter and explaining what they think they have been asked to do. 
  • Emphasise maths vocabulary, key words, syntax and basic mathematical rules. 
  • Allow the use of a calculator to progress mathematical thinking, particularly where arithmetical skills are impeding overall progress.
  • Create a stimulating environment. Wall displays should be purposeful and well presented.
  • Use mnemonics to aid memory. 
  • Encourage workings which show thought processes rather than just answers.
  • Make use of ICT.
  • Minimise the need to copy down work from the board. Where unavoidable check it has been copied accurately. 
  • Ensure exam concessions such as extra time are used. 
  • Help with and encourage good personal organisation.

With thanks to Steve Chinn, editor of the Routledge International Handbook of Dyscalculia and Mathematical Learning Difficulties.

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