Trouble With Math? Understanding Dyscalculia

by | Jul 9, 2014 | By The Subject | 15 comments

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.

Understanding Math Problems

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.

dyslexia and dyscalculia

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 our Kids With Dyscalculia

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

In this online parent course you will learn:

  1. Why some kids struggle unexpectedly with math.
  2. What signs you may be seeing.
  3. The four underlying weaknesses that kids with dyscalculia have and the connection between dyslexia and dyscalculia and other learning difficulties.
  4. Simple teaching strategies and effective activities that can be done at home to help all students develop better math sense.

Visit our shop for more information and to purchase.

Math Resources

Best Math Resources

For a list of my favorite math resource, visit this post, 100 Best Math Resources for Kids Struggling with Math.

As a homeschool parent, you are uniquely knowledgeable of what your child needs. Teaching your kids the way they learn best and with an understanding and compassionate attitude are the best ways to overcome any learning challenges!

15 Comments

  1. Bill Patino

    Thank you for writing down some experiences you’ve had with Dyscalculia. My daughter has it, and it has been a monumental difficult nut to crack. Thanks for the new ideas on how to approach it.

    Reply
    • marianne

      You are welcome Bill. Practice, practice, practice is the name of the game with dyslexia and dyscalculia. These kids learn differently and take a different path on their journey towards mastery. Keep pressing on. She’ll get it eventually using as much multi sensory input as possible.

      Reply
  2. Dusty

    Thank you for your contribution! My dyslexic 10 year old girl struggles with math. We have done great with reading and comprehension, but Math has not really come along. I do several of the things you listed. One that really eases her mind is the multiplication fact sheet. She uses it when she plays games on multiplication.com and really has fun. We have simply slowed down and do a lot of time on money and time and measuring to build her confidence. She totally understands multiplication and even basic division, but she simply can’t do it yet. It has been hard for me to accept as I LOVE math. Harder for her is that her younger brother is really good at math. We talk about how it is important for her to be good at things and for him to be good at things and how one does not reflect negatively on the other but that this helps build each other up! It has helped. I tried Math-u-see and my son loves it, but it moves to quickly for my daughter… really she’s just not ready for multiplying and that is what Gamma is. She love the blocks! she just ends up setting up the problem and then counting every square. This gets tedious and isn’t helping her. Anyhow. I am so glad that I found this sight and have someone to ask questions to. I find it strange that she understands HOW to do all the math concepts but can’t do them. Of the issues you listed under grade schoolers she really on has the counting on fingers and left and right issues. Bright bright kid though! Thanks again!

    Reply
  3. Cathey Long

    For public educated students, what type of professional diagnoses dyscalculia? I would like to get an evaluation and then be able to include suggestions/strategies on a 504. Especially as students are being threatened with holding back a grade if they don’t pass standardized tests – I would like to have some documentation to support my child in this area.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Here’s a great article on how to get a diagnosis for dyscalculia.

      Reply
  4. Tabitha

    Thanks for this article! I have a seven year old who is somewhat dyslexic but we’ve been working through it and she is now enjoying reading. But math has been a huge set back. We did kintergarden math two years ago and she didn’t understand any of it. So we bought math u see Alpha this year and it has gone better. Manipulatives have been a wonderful thing for her. But still we have been stalled in the first chapters in the book. We spent many weeks counting and writing to 100. At this point she hasn’t gotten beyond adding 1s and 2s. Even with manipulatives it’s hit and miss. Some days she “gets” it, I think, and than the next day ( or minute) she doesn’t. We’ve added flash cards and I’ve explained things in any way I could think of which don’t seem to be helping much. She hates it and her imaginative brain has a hard time focusing. She understands more than last year especially place value, but I know she won’t understand the coming chapters at this point. I feel like we’re at a standstill and nothing I do makes any difference. Should I have her go back and do the primer level? I just today discovered the word dyscalculia. I just don’t know what to do!

    Reply
    • Tabitha

      Oh, and her five year old brother is in the same math book with her only passed her, and her four year old sister will be starting the primer level soon. They both do really well. I wasn’t going to start the four year old yet, but she’s been begging me to start and has been doing the bigger kids math right along with them. My seven year old Is already set up to feel singled out and bad about herself for other health related issues. It’s so hard!

      Reply
    • N W

      I am in the same boat with my 7 yr old who should be in second grade. We’ve only ever used MUS, but she still doesn’t get it. We got about 12 lessons in last year and just came to a standstill. We are still trying to get through the book now in second grade. She just does not get it and I don’t know what to do. This child is adopted and I believe there was drug and alcohol use that have affected her mental abilities. She really doesn’t get much of anything and has no impulse control either. Her birth mother admitted to having a learning disability, but wouldn’t tell anyone what it was. That’s no help. I don’t know what to do for this child. It’s so stressful to homeschool her on top of already homeschooling an Aspie and a dyslexic.

      Reply
      • Marianne

        She is still super young. I would just keep building with the blocks until it makes more sense. Try incorporating math into daily life. Counting forks as you set the table. Make up situations so that she has to take away. My 10-year old struggled big time with math concepts when he was younger but now is doing well and catching up. I’m assuming you are talking to her doctors about her attention issues?

        Reply
  5. Cora

    What would diagnosis look like? I have an 11th grader who just could never memorize her facts, understand numbers logically , tell time. I tutor kids who are dyslexic and she’s often say that she thinks she’s dyslexic because of some of the difficulties I’d describe but not in reading or spelling …. how is this different from just not being good at math? (Which also made chemistry impossible!)

    Reply
    • KK

      Cora,
      She sounds like my daughter! Always excelled in teading and writing but struggled with math. Funally had her tested in her Senior year to discover she has dyscalculia but is also 2e ( twice exceptional) So her giftedness is what carried her along in her schooling. I suggest getting your daughter tested for a diagnosis now so that she will be able to have the necessary and needed accommodations in college!
      Marianne, Do you have a important question for you! I know of no other family going to college with a disability. Can you connect me to some help, resources, other families? Since my daughter’s diagnosis was so late in her high school education we’re still struggling to really understand it and know what she needs to succeed in college.
      Thank you!

      Reply
  6. Grace

    I’ve tried some of the more popular free and paid math programs, like Math-U-See, Khan Academy, etc. but for some reason, Math Antics (http://www.mathantics.com) has worked for our family the best so far.

    It is more of a video and worksheet format that re-enforces basic math concepts from elementary to middle school level. I think it’s more of a “mastery” style, in that you don’t really move on till the current math concept has been mastered.

    Some of it is free to try and if you want to be able to download all of the math courses, you only pay $20 yr for the whole subscription. They also have a free YouTube channel.

    Reply
  7. Lorraine

    Please consider looking at Semple Math for profound dyscalculia. Mine didn’t even understand the “=“ was the equal sign when we pulled her out after the 2nd grade and couldn’t count past 10 (because of language processing issues with 11 &12)… it’s much more explicit and corrects many of the orientation issues with the numbers at the same time. It also starts out teaching money early… more important life skillin kids that might not get far in Algebra .

    Reply
    • Marianne

      Thanks Lorraine! I’ll check it out. 🙂

      Reply

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  1. Homeschooling with dyscalculia – Dyscalculia Blog - […] are dyslexic, the blog also includes information and resources on dyscalculia. Check out the post Understanding Dyscalculia for a first overview…
  2. Homeschooling and dyscalculia – Dyscalculia Blog - […] are dyslexic, the blog also includes information and resources on dyscalculia. Check out the post Understanding Dyscalculia for a first overview…
  3. Tips for Homeschooling a Child with Dyscalculia - […] Trouble With Math? Understanding Dyscalculia on Homeschooling with Dyslexia – Marianne describes the signs of dyscalculia and offers suggestions…

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