I get a lot of emails from concerned parents whose kids with dyslexia are also struggling with math – known as dyscalculia. It is super helpful to understand more about dyscalculia so we can teach our kids more effectively.
Of our 7 dyslexic kids, we have had all different experiences with math. Some of our kids could solve complicated Algebraic problems in their heads while others couldn’t remember (after years of instruction and review) basic rules of math.
As in dyslexia, dyscalculia manifests differently in different kids.
Some kids have trouble making sense of numbers and math concepts. Other kids with dyscalculia can’t grasp basic number concepts. Learning and memorizing basic number facts can seem like an impossible task. Kids with dyscalculia may understand what to do in math class but fail to understand why they’re doing it, missing the logic behind it. Other kids understand the logic behind the math but aren’t sure how and when to apply their knowledge to solving problems. As with dyslexia, dyscalculia can be confusing because these same kids are excelling in other classes – there is no intelligence deficit and therefore no obvious reason for these difficulties with math.
In general, people with dyscalculia have poor ‘number sense’.
Number sense is an intuitive understanding of how numbers work, and how to compare and estimate quantities on a number line. Number sense is at the core of math learning. Similarly to how a lack of phonemic awareness causes kids to struggle with reading, a lack of number sense causes trouble with becoming fluent with math concepts. If kids don’t understand the basics about how numbers work, learning math and using it every day can be very frustrating.
Signs of Dyscalculia
Signs of Dyscalculia in a Preschooler or Kindergartener
- Has trouble learning to count, especially when it comes to assigning each object in a group a number.
- Has trouble recognizing number symbols. Example: making the connection between “7” and the word seven.
- Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation, such as knowing that “3” can apply to any group that has three things in it—3 cookies, 3 cars, 3 kids, etc.
- Has trouble remembering numbers, and skips numbers long after kids the same age can count numbers and remember them in the right order.
- Finds it hard to recognize patterns and sort items by size, shape or color.
- Avoids playing popular games like Candy Land that involve numbers, counting and other math concepts.
Signs of Dyscalculia in a Grade-Schooler and Middle-Schooler
- Has trouble recognizing numbers and symbols.
- Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts.
- Struggles to identify +, ‒ and other signs and use them correctly.
- May still use fingers to count instead of using more sophisticated strategies.
- Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column.
- Has trouble coming up with a plan to solve a math problem.
- Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater than and less than.
- Has trouble telling his left from his right, and has a poor sense of direction.
- Has difficulty remembering phone numbers and game scores.
- Avoids playing games like Risk that involve number strategy.
- Has trouble telling time.
Signs of Dyscalculia in a High-Schooler
- Struggles to apply math concepts to everyday life. This includes money matters such as estimating the total cost, making exact change and figuring out a tip.
- Has trouble measuring things, like ingredients in a simple recipe.
- Struggles with finding his way around and worries about getting lost.
- Has hard time grasping information shown on graphs or charts.
- Has trouble finding different approaches to the same math problem.
- Lacks confidence in activities that require estimating speed and distance, such as playing sports and learning to drive.
How to Help Kids With Dyscalculia
There isn’t a lot of research on dyscalculia; what causes it and how to circumvent it. It is assumed that there are both genetic causes as well as unique individual’s experiences that contribute to dyscalculia. Try the following to help students struggling with dyscalculia:
- Use concrete examples that connect math to real life, to strengthen your child’s number sense. Examples: sorting buttons or other familiar objects.
- Use visual aids when solving problems, including drawing pictures or moving around physical objects—also known as manipulatives.
- Assign manageable amounts of work so your child won’t feel overloaded. Break up assignments into smaller chunks, assign every other problem or sit with your child and take turns completing every other problem.
- Lots of review. Review recently learned skills before moving on to a new one and explaining how the skills are related.
- Supervise work and encourage your child to talk through the problem-solving process. Not only can this can help make sure he’s using the right math rules and formulas, it makes the process more auditory and uses another sense thereby increasing the area of the brain used to solve the problem.
- Break new lessons into smaller parts that easily show how different skills relate to the new concept – also known as “chunking.”
- Use graph paper to help keep numbers organized on the page.
- Use an extra piece of paper to cover up most of what’s on a math page, so your child can focus on one problem at a time.
- Playing math-related games designed to help your child have fun and feel more comfortable with math.
What has worked for me
I have found that taking the time to sit with my struggling students during their math lessons (from 3rd grade up they use a computerized curriculum) and offering any assistance they might need reduces the stress that they are feeling about the lesson. Research clearly shows that anxiety and stress greatly inhibits learning, so do what you can to reduce your child’s stress level.
Allow accommodations. Depending on the day, I sometimes write out the problem for them, always allow multiplication charts for reference and occasionally in the older years allow a calculator if I know that they already know how to do the math without one.
Just like kids who struggle with reading, you need to continue to stimulate the intellectual ability of your kids with dyscalculia. Allowing the use of a multiplication facts chart, for example, during long division keeps them progressing through the curriculum providing accommodation. Keeping your kids with dyscalculia progressing through math requires a balance between remediation and accommodation.
This means giving them the tools that they need to continue working through material. I have often found that our accommodations (allowing the multiplication sheet so they can work through long division problems) results in remediation. By searching the chart each time they need to find an answer, they eventually learn their times tables.
Find the Help Your Child With Dyscalculia Needs
- Why some kids struggle unexpectedly with math.
- What signs you may be seeing.
- The four underlying weaknesses that kids with dyscalculia have and the connection between dyslexia and dyscalculia and other learning difficulties.
- Simple teaching strategies and effective activities that can be done at home to help all students develop better math sense.
For a list of my favorite math resource, visit this post, 100 Best Math Resources for Kids Struggling with Math.