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Dyscalculia – What is it and who’s got it?

We’ve all heard of dyslexia and probably know somebody affected by it to some extent. But what is dyscalculia?

Where dyslexia is concerned with difficulty decoding and interpreting words and letter patterns, dyscalculia is related to maths, numbers and arithmetic in particular. That’s it in a nutshell but there’s obviously more.

What does dyscalculia look like?

Dyscalculia can mean a difficulty using some, or a wider range of, mathematical concepts which the most people find straightforward. This can include counting in the pre-school years, missing out numbers and not knowing how many objects represent a number. Later on, retention and/or understanding of number bonds (e.g. 6+4=10), and a lack of understanding of maths vocabulary (add, subtract, more than, less than) can be indicators. Avoidance of activities requiring use of numbers or number skills (board games, keeping score in games) may also be linked to dyscalculia.

Numbers don’t always make sense

So if I see the above traits, has my child got dyscalculia?

There’s the big question. The answer is simple – possibly yes or possibly no. For a start, these are just a sample of potential identifiers, not a diagnosis. Making a diagnosis based simply on lists of traits (hence why a list is not directly written in this article) is a risky and potentially inaccurate business. Furthermore, as dyslexia specialist Georgina Smith of Codebreakers points out in her article, How do I know if my child/student has dyscalculia?’, computer based screening tests, and some others, miss out the important element of the child’s reasoning behind their answer.

In recent years, the emphasis on reasoning has become more and more prevalent in maths teaching.  Over time, in the classroom, we have noticed that emphasis on pace of learning and ‘knowing’ has sometimes prevented understanding being embedded as thoroughly as it should have been. However, a lack of reasoning skills does not necessarily point to dyscalculia; it could be lack of practice of these skills. Similarly, gaps in knowledge  might not point to dyscalculia. A child may be able to use a good level of reasoning to explain what they do know.

What if I suspect dyscalculia?

First up – don’t diagnose just yet. Build-up a logical argument as to why you suspect dyscalculia. Ask whether any other factors could be playing a part. For example, is the child just anxious about maths and/or new learning? Do they find maths difficult but no more so than some of their peers? Keep in mind that many children struggle with maths (and often different elements of maths) from time-to-time. Finding maths hard is not unusual. Consider where the child is in terms of attainment in maths – a little behind does not necessarily mean dyscalculia. Remember, all children develop at different rates. (Read our advice on helping with homework if you’re child is struggling with some concepts.) Further investigation could be needed where a child is significantly behind their peers in  maths.

If you’re a parent, speak to the your child’s teacher and/or the school’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator). Raise your concerns, present your case and ask them for their views and comments (and read our articleSpecial needs worries – what you should do).If you’re a teacher, consider further aspects such as the style of teaching the child has been exposed to. For example, has the child had plenty of opportunity for working with concrete and pictorial representations before moving on to the abstract? Have they previously had much experience of, and opportunity for, reasoning.

What if dyscalculia is diagnosed?

Make sure there is always a close working relationship between the parent(s) and the teacher(s). Take advice, work with this advice and monitor the situation carefully. It may take some time before  the child has strategies which help him/her cope with dyscalculia. Of at least equal importance is working with the child at school and at home for some time each week. They will need specific support learning new strategies and applying them in their maths work.

How can I find out more?

There are many websites containing checklists and further information about dyscalculia – exercise caution as mentioned above. This book by expert Steve Chinn is a valuable resource, as is the  Dyscalculia Pocketbook.

Keep an eye open for conferences and information sessions about Dyscalculia too, such as the one at the SEN Jigsaw Conference for parents and professionals.

Arrow-Ed resources provide pointers in every learning guide for adults supporting children with maths. We make suggestions for what to discuss and how to encourage the learner. We emphasize  reasoning, and developing maths skills through use of concrete and pictorial resources before working in the abstract. Visit our shop page for samples and our highly competitively priced units.