Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty with mathematics, primarily arithmetic.

Researchers agree that there is no single problem and there are many contributing factors, but there are key difficulties that are common amongst dyscalculic children.

The simple strategies laid out here address some of them, and I hope will help boost your pupils’ confidence.

The counting trap

If pupils have an over-reliance on counting in ones, use manipulatives and visuals, such as base-10 blocks (Dienes), to provide images of quantities and to interlink them.

Use recognisable and consistent patterns based on 1, 2, 5 and 10 (the core facts).

For example:

*  *
  *    is 5
*  *


*  *    *
  *          is 7, shown as 5+2
*  *    *

Pupils can be shown how ‘chunking’ (partitioning) can help them work beyond ones.

Counting backwards

Dyscalculic pupils may have difficulty counting backwards or reversing maths sequences. This requires working memory, so it can be much harder than many teachers and parents recognise.

It sets the foundation for subtraction and is a good opportunity to demonstrate vocabulary such as ‘take away’, ‘subtract’ and one of my favourite questions: “Is it bigger or smaller?”.

Sense of number and estimation

Objects set out in recognisable patterns create the foundations for developing these skills. The question, “Is it bigger or smaller?” is useful.

For many pupils, the basics need frequent revisits, topping up memory and securing understanding.

Remember that children may also have difficulty estimating and keeping track of the time.

Place value

A child can learn to count to 10, but writing ‘10’ as two digits is a very sophisticated and underrated task in terms of understanding how that communicates ‘ten’.

This can be demonstrated as a cognitively developmental sequence, using base-10 blocks on a place value card as the starting point, then weaning the child down to using just the symbols.

You can use a similar process to demonstrate multiplying and dividing by 10, 100, and so on. Try to avoid a reliance on the concept of ‘add/ take away a zero’.

Recalling facts

One of the key difficulties for dyscalculic learners is retention of basic facts and maths procedures in their long-term memory.

But, like most of the learning problems in maths, this is not exclusive to dyscalculic pupils, and there is a spectrum of abilities for all the factors listed in this article.

However, you can show children how to link patterns (and their symbols) to demonstrate addition and subtraction facts, for example:

*  *    *  *
*        *      5+5 is 10
*  *    *  *


*  *    *  *
*        *    *    5+6 is 11, shown as 5+5+1
*  *    *  *

This principle can be extended to multiplication facts, too, developing pupils’ understanding and giving them strategies to access their knowledge.

For example, 6 x 6 is explained and demonstrated as six lots of six. The sixes can be chunked as (6+6+6+6+6) and (6), that is 5x6 and1x6, making 30+6; 36.

This strategy can be applied to many other examples. It teaches the child about multiplication and how it is linked to addition.

It also sets the foundation for later, more challenging work on multiplication and algebra.

Speed of working

The culture of maths to provide answers quickly is counter-productive for many children, especially those with a slower rate of processing and slow or uncertain recall of procedures.

Any help in reducing this (often unrealistic) expectation will be good for these learners. Give them fewer examples, but carefully selected to provide a sufficient breadth of learning experience.

Mental arithmetic

Many people think mental arithmetic skills are an essential basic for learning maths. I would challenge that belief.

Two key skills you need to be good at mental arithmetic are short-term memory (to remember the question) and working memory (to work out the answer).

It also helps if you have quick access to the basic facts. Dyscalculic children often have difficulties with these things, so one reasonable adjustment would be to show the question, not just say the question. Another would be to give more time and allow a jotter pad.

Ultimately, each child is different, and as the great US pioneer of dyslexia, Margaret Rawson said, it is a matter of “teaching maths as it is, to learners as they are”.

Steve Chinn is a teacher and expert in dyscalculia and learning difficulties. Find more info at stevechinn.co.uk/dyscalculia