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Trouble With Numbers – A Teacher’s Guide To Dyscalculia

  • Trouble With Numbers – A Teacher’s Guide To Dyscalculia

In a week that’s seen much talk of incoming formal multiplication tests for Y6, Diana Hudson presents an overview of the condition known as dyscalculia

What is dyscalculia?

People with dyscalculia are intelligent, but have particular difficulty with numbers, counting and arithmetic. Dyscalculia is now recognised as a separate Specific Learning Difficulty and can be identified with specialist diagnostic tests. It affects girls and boys equally.

How common is it?

Around 5% of people have dyscalculia alone, but a greater number have it in combination with dyslexia or another Specific Learning Difficulty. In a class of 30 children there could therefore be 1 or 2 who struggle with numbers.

How can I spot a student with dyscalculia?

Look for students who are articulate and intelligent, but perform surprisingly badly in tasks where numbers and calculations are involved. Behaviour characteristic of dyscalculia can include:

• No intuitive grasp of numbers and their relative size
• Uncertainty over whether a procedure will make the answer larger or smaller
• Trouble rounding numbers up or down and estimating answers
• Difficulty recognising group number patterns, even if under 10 items
• Frequent counting on fingers
• Particular problems understanding zeros and decimal points
• Extreme difficulty in learning tables
• Problems remembering numerical facts
• Failure to see connections between known number relationships (e.g. if 3 + 5 = 8 then 8 - 5 = 3)
• Difficulties in reading an analogue clock, timetable or grid reference
• An inability to transfer skills or procedures learned to solve one set of problems to tackling different problems. 
• Difficulty working out what a question is asking
• A tendency to panic and go blank when prompted with number question, especially under pressure
• Tendency to confuse similar-looking numbers, such as 3 and 8 or 6 and 9
• Similar confusion regarding maths symbols (e.g. ÷, –, +, etc.)

Further short-term memory difficulties may result in students struggling to recall numbers for long enough to work on during calculations, multiple processes or instructions and number sequences, such as phone numbers or security codes.

More complex mathematical procedures can result in severe problems at secondary school if the basics are shaky, causing students anxiety and a lack of confidence. However, some dyscalculic students can be good at certain aspects of higher maths, such as geometry, which call upon the use of different skills.

The upsides of dyscalculia

People with dyscalculia may be very talented in other areas requiring different sets of skills. These can include being:

• Good lateral thinkers
• Holistic
• Intuitive
• Imaginative, artistic and creative, while possessing good sense of colour and texture
• Able to demonstrate good memory skills for language-based information
• Good with tasks requiring verbal skills, such as public speaking or acting
• Able to write expressively and employ a wide vocabulary
• Empathetic and sensitive to others
• Resourceful and tenacious
• Confident when working in teams

Dyscalculia – 10 teaching tips

1 Your attitude can make a huge difference – make it clear to the pupil that you understand their genuine difficulty and want to help them to find successful ways of working

2 Be positive and encouraging to build students’ self-esteem and confidence

3 Make your classroom a safe place in which pupils can make mistakes without anxiety; avoid embarrassing the pupil

4 Be clear and precise with your instructions

5 Use solid, handle-able, everyday examples where possible for explanations

6 Written questions should be read out loud to make sure that the meaning is clear, and to remind students of any procedures they need to follow

7 Allow the use of times table squares or calculators

8 Handouts should be given out with clearly presented key facts, formulae, and worked examples; Use large, easily legible writing with wide spacing, colours and cartoons to make them more visually appealing

9 Do not set too much homework. When marking, acknowledge and praise correct method and progress, but point out any errors due to copying or transposing numbers. If it is clear that the student has not understood the question or the method, it may be wise to see the student individually to go through the work and reinforce methods

10 Keep your sense of humour. Be upbeat and approachable. Organise a time in the week when students know that they can come and see you individually to sort out any worries

Useful Links

British Dyslexia Association
Dyscalculia Support Centre
The Dyscalculia Centre
The Dyscalculia and Dyslexia Interest Group, Loughborough University
Steve Chinn, Maths author

More information on left and right brain functions, learning styles, dyscalculia and other SpLD’s can be found can be found in Diana Hudson’s book Specific Learning Difficulties – What Teachers Need to Know, available now in paperback from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, priced at £12.99

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