Back in the 1980s some special needs educators began to realise that many children who had been described or diagnosed as dyslexics had problems with maths, primarily basic numeracy. My book, ‘Mathematics and Dyslexia’ was published in 1993. By the time the 3rd edition was published in 2007, the title had changed to, ‘Mathematics for Dyslexics, Including Dyscalculia.’ Our awareness has sharpened over the last forty years and the amount of research into dyscalculia is now reaching parity with research into dyslexia.
Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty with maths. It may co-occur with other difficulties, primarily dyslexia, but also dyspraxia and speech and language disorders for example. The occurrence of dyscalculia is probably on a par with dyslexia, or maybe higher. Certainly, the percentage of children and adults with maths learning difficulties, to the point of being functionally innumerate is high, around 20-25% in the UK. Not surprisingly, there is a spectrum of difficulties. One of the key distinguishing factors for dyscalculia is the perseverance of the difficulties and their resistance to ‘normal’ teaching methods.
Maths is a very developmental subject. There are benefits and disadvantages to this. The main disadvantage is that as the child gets older and further along the maths curriculum, the further they will fall behind. The main advantage is that we can build on what they do know to link it to what they can come to know.
The main signs to look for in the classroom are:
- Poor sense of numbers and operations.
- Poor long-term memory for maths facts and procedures.
- Anxiety and withdrawal.
- Weak working memory and short-term memory.
- A significant difficulty with reversing information, such as number sequences or steps in a calculation.
- A heavy reliance on trying to merely recall information and then using it literally, instead of understanding the concepts that link information in maths.
- Slow speed of retrieval of facts and in processing/performing numerical problems, for example, slow recall of basic facts.
- Poor mental arithmetic skills.
- Problems with maths vocabulary and symbols.
- Poor abilities with generalising/classifying and sequencing.
Many of these factors interact, for example, high anxiety can reduce working memory and struggling to retrieve information from long-term memory can create slow speed of working. Any one of these factors can have a significant impact on learning. A combination of factors will, obviously, have a far more serious impact. Good classroom management monitors the factors and their impact on learning. Awareness is key.
There is sound research to show that poor abilities in maths in early years can have a lifelong impact. This tells us that intervention should begin as soon as possible and, often an under-emphasised element, as far back in the curriculum as possible.
There is also research that tells us that when a person learns something for the first time, it will be a dominant entry into the brain …. whether it is correct or incorrect information. Then it gets worse! Even if the learner appears to have mastered the new information there is always a strong tendency to revert to that first learning. Mastery may be transient. This seems to me to be one of the most powerful reasons for teaching with visual images, to create new learning, new and secure entries to the brain.
One final factor before I touch on intervention methods is perseverance of difficulties. Although this may sound an obvious factor, it is a key distinguishing observation for classroom identification.
Intervention needs to be different to what has gone before. More of the same will not work. It should be cognisant of both the nature of maths and the nature of the learner. So, classrooms should adjust for factors such as poor working memories, for copying from the white board, for slower speeds of working. Concepts should be illustrated with appropriate materials (Dienes blocks are one of my favourites) and visual images., always overtly linking the image to the symbols. Technology allows us to do the with great effectiveness. Do have a look at stevechinn.co.uk and mathsexplained.co.uk to see many examples of this approach.
About the Author
Professor Steve Chinn was founder and Principal of Mark College, Somerset. During his 19 years of setting up and running Mark College it was awarded Beacon School Status by the DfE and the first Award for Excellence by the Independent Schools' Association.
Steve is a visiting professor at the University of Derby. He has lectured and provided INSET and CPD in over 30 countries worldwide and at many major conferences. He set up the UK’s first PG training course for maths and dyslexia, accredited by the BDA for an AMBDA (Numeracy). The course was delivered for 4 years under Mark College's Beacon School funding.
As well as writing maths books, worksheets and tests, Steve has contributed chapters to many books, including 'Dyslexia and Mathematics' the first UK book on this topic. He has also published many papers, and articles. The first edition of ‘The Trouble with Maths’ won a TES/nasen award in 2004. The 3rd edition was published in 2016. The 4th edition of his ‘seminal’ book, ‘Mathematics for Dyslexics and Dyscalculics’ was published in 2017. ‘More Trouble with Maths’, now in 2nd edition, is a comprehensive manual, including tests, for diagnosing Mathematical Learning Difficulties and dyscalculia.