The term literally means difficulty with reckoning, from the Latin calculus, originally a pebble used as a counter.
For some reason to have difficulty with maths is more readily admitted and acceptable than having difficulty reading or writing. Parents who have had difficulties with Maths themselves may reassure their child that it doesn’t matter. Difficulties with maths do not overspill into the child’s psyche as much as literacy difficulties. Yet they are now proven to be more detrimental to success in life. Imagine not appreciating the difference between a flat interest rate of 3% and compound interest of 19% when taking out a money loan?
Difficulties in maths also undoubtedly contribute to a great deal of unhappiness at school. I have spoken to many teachers who themselves recall the fear of not knowing the answer in a maths lesson, of being picked on to explain, of being afraid to ask questions and after asking for an explanation, still not understanding the answer – the horror of double maths tomorrow! One might think therefore, that dyscalculia is very common, but, in my experience, it is quite rare. What we are seeing is mainly maths phobia, usually attributable to poor maths experiences, poor, inappropriate teaching, lack of overlearning experiences or missed schooling. Maths learning is hierarchical, it would be inappropriate to teach fractions before the place value of our number system. Yet the maths curriculum drives on, often regardless of understanding or mastery of earlier lessons.
The anxiety created prevents clear thinking and I have observed many heads nodding to confirm understanding in order for the child to gratefully be out of the spotlight for a while. The problems with lack of understanding and purely learning by rote return of course, and can often be seen to be dealt with by a frustrated teacher who thinks that saying it louder might help.
Dyslexics have innate difficulties that can impact on maths learning and can appear dyscalculic. Yet their poor ability to learn by rote alone would be a huge problem when maths is taught without real understanding. This lack of understanding means they lose self- esteem in the subject. They are unable to use the flexible thinking required for problem solving, or any attempts at estimation, all the while searching for the ‘correct’ answer and the algorithm (calculating method eg long division) that can provide the holy grail of a correct answer. Yet flexible and divergent thinking is often the bonus for being dyslexic, so while it has been estimated that 60% of dyslexics have problems with maths, 30% have no problem, while 10% are very gifted at it. How can this be? Could it be that they were taught more thoroughly, with a higher level of understanding? Were they enthused to explore the subject with a home background that enjoyed card and strategy games? Or did their divergent and problem-solving skills actually produce a benefit in maths learning?
Classically dyslexic learners struggle with the language of maths (they can muddle thirteen and thirty), the rote learning of common sequences eg times tables, and orientation (eg place value and telling the time)
Dyspraxics similarly have innate tendencies that can impact on maths learning. Implicit in their diagnosis is a difficulty with space, shape, physical manipulation, time and organisation and sometimes visual perception. The repercussions mathematically are – problems setting work out on the page, difficulties with place value, weaknesses in understanding data presented graphically or diagrammatically, problems with shape identification and aspects of symmetry, difficulty physically manipulating rulers, protractors, compasses etc. and a tendency to not have the right books and equipment to fully participate in the lessons.
So what is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is estimated to affect 6-7% of the population. The DfES (2001) uses the following definition.
‘Dyscalculia is a condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. The dyscalculic learner may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence.’
At its most basic level, dyscalculics do not seem to have an innate sense of number quantity and rely on physically counting even small quantities one at a time. They can then fail to see the connection between a set of objects and the number symbol that represents it. They then go on to have an inordinate difficulty in acquiring maths concepts which are acquired hierarchically.
The first is numerosity, the principle of number clusters or fast recognition of low number quantities such as five. This ultimately builds into an understanding of the quantities and relationships of these quantities in the creation of our number system ie ten consists of ten ones or five and five, and one hundred consists of a hundred ones or ten tens, each decade having its own label twenty, thirty, forty etc. The hardest decade to understand is the decade between ten and twenty as the language of the number label does not help with understanding the quantity of that label. All too often twelve is just a word that comes out of their mouth by rote after the word eleven. The label eleven does not carry the sense of ten plus one more.
The second concept is place value and the idea of zero as a place keeper, the child who does not understand place value will write 1001 for one hundred and one.
The third concept is computation – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and the fourth is parts of a whole – fractions, decimals and percentages.
Any difficulty in acquiring these concepts affects mental maths, the ability to estimate, to see patterns and short cuts in our number system and to be able to generalize from one learning experience to another. Dyscalculics often continue to count in ones and their ‘workings out’ on exam papers consist of rows of tally marks.
All too often these different learners see maths as inflicted on them rather than relevant.
Professor Brian Butterworth states ‘Poor number skills are more of a handicap in the workplace than poor literacy. It has been found that men and women aged 30, with poor number skills, are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be depressed, more likely to be ill and more likely to be arrested.’
This should be a huge message to society, to schools, to maths teachers and parents.