Dyscalculia has been defined by DfES[1] (2001) as ‘a condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical 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.’ Although many of the characteristics of a student with Dyscalculia are similar to those shown by students who do poorly in maths, it is the degree of the difficulties and the resistance to specialist intervention that set students with Dyscalculia apart from others.

Researchers Butterworth and Yeo point out that ‘Generally, one can fail to diagnose dyscalculia when only accuracy is considered, since the percentage of correct answers will not reveal whether the subject is using immature strategies like counting in addition, where normal children will simply retrieve the answer from memory.’[2] Studies have also shown that Dyscalculic students need to count three dots, and their counting is slow, whilst typical students can recognise it as 3 without counting.

The prevalence of dyscalculia is between 4-15% depending on the definition used to define it. It can be diagnosed by an Educational Psychologist who compares performance between academic potential with an assessment of how the student performs in mathematical tasks. These mathematical tasks would include both questions relating to recall of number facts (such as 24+10) as well as practical mathematical questions related to money, clocks and graphs.

Early identification of a student’s strengths and weaknesses is important so that relevant supports can be made. Emphasis during intervention would be on understanding concepts rather than teaching for rote learning. Strong links must be made between what a student truly understands and can use in their own day-to-day mathematical tasks with the more formal aspects of school-based learning. Support such as concrete objects can be used to make these links. Number grids and reference charts can be made available for students who have difficulty recalling number facts. 

What you might see in the classroom:

Lower primary:

  • Difficulties recognising numbers
  • Poor counting skills
  • Inability to identify which set has more/ less
  • Difficulty recognising a set of objects without needing to count them
  • Delays in using effective strategies such as counting on
  • Difficulty seeing that 2+3 is the same as 3+2 and the same as 1+4 (decomposing numbers)
  • Memory difficulties with basic facts

Upper Primary

  • Anxiety about maths and negative attitude
  • Continued ineffective strategies used
  • Poor recall of basic facts and times tables
  • Delays in learning to tell the time
  • Poor understanding of regrouping: 35 is 3 tens and 5 ones
  • Difficulty with place value
  • Poor processing of multi-step algorithms

Secondary School

  • Delays in mental maths abilities
  • Difficulty finding alternate ways to solve problems
  • Difficulty reading and interpreting charts and graphs
  • Poor budgeting and time management skills
  • Inability to explain how answer was achieved

[1] Department for Education and Skills (UK) 2001, cited by Butterworth, B & Yeo, D;2004

[2] Brian Butterworth, 2004. Dyscalculia Guidance: Helping Pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties in Maths. 0 Edition. David Fulton Publishers.