The word dyscalculia comes from Greek and Latin and means ‘counting badly’.
The definition given by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES, 2001) described dyscalculia as:
‘A condition that affects the ability to acquire mathematical skills. Dyscalculic learners 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’.
Our understanding of dyscalculia is far behind that of dyslexia. There is no collection of standardized tests available that can be used to say definitively that a pupil is dyscalculic. Rather teachers have to work on a principle of ‘exclusion’. ie. If a pupil is of average or above average cognitive ability and has no problems with literacy or other general subjects, and all other reasons for failure can be excluded, and yet is unable to understand the maths that their peers are coping with easily, then they might be dyscalculic.
There are many differing ideas about the causes of dyscalculia including the following:
Rourke and Conway, 1997 – Dyscalculia results from spatial processing difficulties
Keeler and Swanson, 2001 – Dyscalculia results from disrupted verbal and/or visuo-spatial working memory functions
Piazza et al., 2010 – Dyscalculia results from impairment of the approximate number system
Hannula et al., 2010 – Dyscalculia results from disruptions with central executive functions
Professor Brian Butterworth 2012 – Dyscalculia is a core deficit in numerosity processing
Daniel Ansari and Marie Pascale 2013 – Difficulties relating a symbol to its quantity are a better predictor of later maths difficulties than a weakness in the number module
Kiran Vanbinst & Bert De Smedt 2016 – Symbolic numerical awareness is as important to arithmetic as phonological awareness is to reading
Dr Steve Chinn’s research has found that stress inhibits learning
Dr Dénes Szücs 2017 – The best cognitive predictors in maths performance in 9 year old students is about 3 domains;
• Space – visual working memory to keep in mind and manipulate visual information, plus spatial operations and orientations
• Language – verbal working memory to memorize facts, partial results and a symbolic toolset, plus vocabulary
• Executive functioning – organising activities plus task switching abilities
Overall, there is substantial evidence to suggest that there is no unique functional impairment at the heart of dyscalculia, but that several cognitive functions may be implicated.
Dyscalculic symptoms can be observed as specifically mathematical and also as life-skill difficulties, brought on by the lack of mathematical proficiency and the weakness of underlying skills needed for the development of mathematical understanding.
Specifically mathematical symptoms would include:
• Inability to tell which of two numbers was larger
• Frequent difficulties with arithmetic, confusing signs: +,-, x, ÷
• Reliance on ‘counting-on’ strategies: using fingers rather than more efficient mental arithmetic strategies
• Difficulty with times-tables
• Difficulty with mental arithmetic
• Difficulty mentally estimating the measurement of an object or distance
• Inability to grasp or remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae and sequences
Generally observed life skill symptoms would include:
• Difficulty in activities requiring sequential processing, from the physical, such as dance steps, to the abstract, reading, writing and signalling things in the right order
• Difficulty with everyday tasks like checking change and reading analogue clocks
• Inability to comprehend financial planning or budgeting such as estimating the cost of the items on a shopping list or balancing a chequebook
• Difficulty in conceptualizing time and judging the passing of time
• Problems differentiating between left and right
• Having a poor sense of direction
• Difficulty navigating or mentally ‘turning’ the map to face the current direction rather than the common North = top usage
• Difficulty keeping score during games
The condition may lead to a phobia of mathematics and mathematical devices.