Dyscalculia is a term referring to a wide range of life-long learning disabilities involving the manipulation of numbers, arithemtic and maths.
There is no single form of maths disability, and difficulties vary from person to person. It affects people differently, both in school and throughout life.
What are the effects of dyscalculia?
Since disabilities involving maths can be so different, the effects they have on a person's development can be just as different e.g. a person who has trouble processing language will face different challenges in maths than a person who has difficulty with visual - spatial relationships.
Another person with trouble remembering facts and keeping a sequence of steps in order, will have yet a different set of maths-related challenges to overcome.
Clearly, building a solid foundation in maths involves many different skills. Young children with learning disabilities can have difficulty with;
- learning the meaning of numbers (number sense),
- trouble with tasks like sorting objects by shape, size or color;
- recognising groups and patterns;
- comparing and contrasting using concepts like smaller/bigger or taller/shorter.
Learning to count, recognising numbers and matching numbers with amounts can also be difficult for these children.
As maths learning continues, school-age children with language processing disabilities may have difficulty solving basic number problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
They struggle to remember and retain basic mathematical facts (i.e. times tables), and have trouble figuring out how to apply their knowledge and skills to solve number problems.
Difficulties may also arise because of weakness in visual-spatial skills, where a person may understand the needed mathematical facts, but have difficulty putting them down on paper in an organised way.
Visual-spatial difficulties can also be challenging, when trying to understand what is written on a board or in a textbook.
Teenagers & adults
If basic mathematical facts are not mastered, many teenagers and adults with dyscalculia may have difficulty moving on to more advanced math applications. Language processing disabilities can make it hard for a person to get a grasp of the vocabulary of math. Without the proper vocabulary and a clear understanding of what the words represent, it is difficult to build on math knowledge.
Success in more advanced math procedures requires that a person be able to follow multi-step procedures. For individuals with learning disabilities, it may be hard to visualize patterns, different parts of a math problem or identify critical information needed to solve equations and more complex problems.
What are the warning signs?
Since math disabilities are varied, the signs that a person may have a difficulty in this area can be just as varied. However, having difficulty learning math skills does not necessarily mean a person has a learning disability. All students learn at different paces, and particularly among young people, it takes time and practice for formal math procedures to make practical sense.
If a person has trouble in any of the areas below, additional help may be beneficial.
- Good at speaking, reading, and writing, but slow to develop counting and math problem-solving skills
- Good memory for printed words, but difficulty reading numbers, or recalling numbers in sequence
- Good with general math concepts, but frustrated when specific computation and organisation skills need to be used
- Trouble with the concept of time-chronically late, difficulty remembering schedules, trouble with approximating how long something will take
- Poor sense of direction, easily disoriented and easily confused by changes in routine
Poor long term memory of concepts-can do math functions one day, but is unable to repeat them the next day
- Poor mental math ability-trouble estimating grocery costs or counting days until vacation
- Difficulty playing strategy games like chess, bridge or role-playing video games
- Difficulty keeping score when playing board and card games.
How is dyscalculia identified?
When a teacher or trained professional evaluates a student for learning disabilities in math, the student is interviewed about a full range of math-related skills and behaviours. Pencil and paper math tests are often used, but a real evaluation needs to accomplish more.
An evaluation needs to reveal how a person understands and uses numbers and maths concepts, to solve advanced-level, as well as everyday, problems.
The evaluation compares a person's expected and actual levels of skill and understanding while noting the person's specific strengths and weaknesses. Below are some of the areas that may be addressed:
- Ability with basic math skills like counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing
- Ability to predict appropriate procedures based on understanding patterns - knowing when to add, subtract, multiply, divide or do more advanced computations
- Ability to organize objects in a logical way
- Ability to measure-telling time, using money
- Ability to estimate number quantities
- Ability to self-check work and find alternate ways to solve problems.
Helping a student identify his/her strengths and weaknesses is the first step to getting help. Following identification, parents, teachers and other educators can work together to establish strategies that will help the student learn math more effectively.
Help outside the classroom lets a student and tutor focus specifically on the difficulties that student is having, taking pressure off moving to new topics too quickly. Repeated reinforcement and specific practice of straightforward ideas can make understanding easier.
Other strategies for inside and outside the classroom include:
- Use graph paper for students who have difficulty organising ideas on paper.
- Work on finding different ways to approach mathematical facts; i.e., instead of just memorising the multiplication tables, explain that 8 x 2 = 16, so if 16 is doubled, 8 x 4 must = 32. Put them in a number triangle.
- Practice estimating as a way to begin solving math problems.
- Introduce new skills beginning with concrete examples and later moving to more abstract applications.
- For language difficulties, explain ideas and problems clearly. Encourage students to talk about their difficulties and ask questions as they work.
- Provide a place to work with few distractions and have pencils, erasers and other tools on hand as needed.
- Help students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how a person learns best is a big step in achieving academic success and confidence.