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Dyscalculia and Maths Dyslexia

Dyscalculia is Commonly Called Maths Dyslexia

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disability in mathematics.  In many ways it is the maths equivalent of dyslexia and is often referred to as maths dyslexia.  However, dyscalculia it is not as well known or understood as dyslexia.  Dyslexia is a specific difficulty with literacy, whilst dyscalculia is a disability in mathematics.

Dyscalculia and Dyslexia

There is also considerable overlap between dyscalculia and dyslexia, hence why dyscalculia is often called number dyslexia or maths dyslexia.

Deficits in language and working memory can create problems in mastering both mathematics and literacy skills.  However, the two disorders can also exist in isolation from each other.  Of the two disorders, dyslexia is usually more recognised with interventions planned as a result, as compared with mathematical difficulties which can often go unnoticed.  This may be because mathematics is seen as a more challenging subject, where it is more ‘normal’ and therefore acceptable to have difficulties.  Thus many students do not receive dyscalculia tutoring which would greatly assist them in mastering the concepts of mathematics.

Signs of ‘Maths Dyslexia’ or Dyscalculia

Students with dyscalculia seem to be just as intelligent as their peers.  They have been taught in the same way and engaged in the same mathematical activities.  However, they encounter distinct difficulties in mastering the basics of mathematical thinking.  As a result, they often struggle to acquire the essential concepts that are needed to perform mathematical procedures.  Dyscalculia is a developmental problem, rather than a difficulty that has been acquired through accident, illness, poor teaching or other adverse circumstances.

How Common is Dyscalculia?

There is general agreement that about 5-8% of pupils have dyscalculia.  An average class of 30 children will have two or three students who are affected by it.

Dyscalculia and Language

Many students with dyscalculia have difficulties with the language of mathematics.  A young child’s understanding of mathematical concepts is bound to their language development.  They learn about words and phrases, learn to count and name shapes often before they begin at school.  Students with inadequate language skills may have problems in their language skills development or they may have particular difficulty with the language related to mathematical concepts such as position, relationships and size: The yesterday after tomorrow.  It’s less bigger than my one.  

Mathematical Thinking is more Difficult without Good Language Skills

It is extremely difficult to deal with new ideas, understand abstract concepts, manipulate information and ideas, solve problems and remember previous learning without using appropriate language.  If students don’t have adequate language skills, their ability to handle some concepts and ideas will be reduced.  Language is important as a way of carrying thinking forward and also helps to link new ideas with ones already mastered: This is a ten, so I think that I can break it up to make more ones, yes that will work, now I have got 13 ones.

Language is also very important in helping to handle sequences and maintain the order of information: First I have to write down the three and then I have to carry the four.  Sequenced language is often difficult for students with dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia and Memory

Many students with dyscalculia have memory deficits.  These deficits may be in working memory or in long-term memory.  Working memory deficits in both the verbal and visuospatial domains contribute to difficulties with mathematics.  Difficulties in working memory may mean that a student has to depend on counting with their fingers and also makes too hard to recite multiplication tables.  As a result, this compounds the difficulties with mathematical concepts.

Making Mathematical Connections

One the keys to helping students with dyscalculia is helping them become aware of the mathematical world around them.  Many students with dyscalculia only connect with mathematical information when they are learning maths in the classroom.  This means that their learning environment is significantly impoverished as they are only thinking mathematically for brief periods of time.  Therefore, one of the key factors is in making connections with what the student already knows.

Using real-life experiences that are already familiar helps them to connect with what is being taught and can lessen their anxiety and frustration.  For example, using the concept of time, if the student is going to the movies they could estimate what time they have to leave and what time the movie will approximately finish.  Another technique can be playing mathematical ‘I spy’ – I spy with my little eye a triangle or something that is more than one metre long.  By doing this, children can understand the purpose of mathematics and will help with their learning engagement.  After all, learning is best when it occurs in multiple contexts.

Impact of Dyscalculia on Children

Dyscalculia or maths dyslexia can have a dramatic effect on a student’s attitude towards mathematics, as they may become confused and frustrated by the difficulties they encounter.  They even become resistant towards mathematics and use avoidance as a means of avoiding these feelings.  Helping to create mathematical connections can offset the anxiety, frustration, confusion and sense of failure that students with dyscalculia may be feeling and help to improve their motivation to learn.

Author Justin Clark, Learning Difficulties Tutor who provides tailored one-on-one help including dyscalculia tutoring in Brisbane.

maths dyslexia

Justin Clark, Private Brisbane Tutor