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Dyscalculia and Maths Difficulties

Because Einstein had dyslexia, some people think that all people with dyslexia are brilliant at maths.  Unfortunately this is not so.  Research shows that 40-50% of students with dyslexia show no signs of dyscalculia, with about 10% excelling in maths.  The remaining 50-60% have maths difficulties. For some the difficulty is more based in the language of maths, rather than any difficulty with the concepts.

Dyscalculia is the term used for a specific learning disability affecting numbers and maths.  Students with dyscalculia have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Dyslexia and dyscalculia can co-exist or they can exist independently of one another.

The areas of maths that students with dyslexia find most difficult are:

  • The language of maths. Some students struggle to read and understand the vocabulary in maths questions, and therefore don’t know what task they are being asked to do.  Many different words can be used to describe the same action, e.g. add, increase, plus, total.
  • Sequencing. The learning of maths is very sequential, but to successfully complete many maths problems a very strict sequence must be followed. Learning times tables is all about learning a strict sequence of information.
  • Orientation.  Difficulties with orientation and direction can lead to confusion of maths symbols. Some people with dyslexia show weakness in the Coding subtest in the assessment meaning that they struggle to decode symbols accurately and quickly.
  • Memory. There are many facts, figures, tables and formulas which have to be learnt and recalled accurately.
  • Confidence. A lack of confidence in their own maths ability can exacerbate the above difficulties.

It is important that teachers, and parents, understand how dyslexia can affect the progress of a student in maths and that there are strategies that have been successfully used in teaching maths to students with dyslexia:

  • Multi-sensory teaching using concrete objects will help to establish abstract mathematical concepts.
  • Students may need specific instruction to help them understand the language and symbols used in maths.
  • Appropriate aids such as number squares and calculators should be available, and students should be taught how to use them.
  • Computer programmes can be useful to help consolidate learning. (link to the numeracy sub-section in the Computers and Technology section)

Maths learning support in schools tends to be more difficult to obtain, as the priority is often placed on literacy supports.  The D.A.I. tutor lists do contain some teachers who do maths learning support outside of school. (link to the Specialist Tuition for Children Section in the DAI Services Section).

Trinity College Dublin now offers an exemption from the Maths entry requirement to students with dyscalculia on courses where maths is not a significant component of the course.  We hope other colleges will follow their example.

Recommended Books on Maths and Dyslexia/Dyscalculia

  • Dyscalculia Guidance: Helping Pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties in Maths
    B. Butterworth & D. Yeo (2004) NFER Nelson. ISBN 978-0708711521.
  • Mathematics for Dyslexics including Dyscalculia
    S. Chinn & R. Ashcroft (2006) Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0470026922.
  • The Trouble with Maths: A Practical Guide to Helping Learners with Numeracy Difficulties
    S. Chinn (2004) Routledge. ISBN 978-0415324984.
  • The Dyscalculia Toolkit: Supporting Learning Difficulties in Maths
    R. Bird (2007) Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412947657.
  • The Dyscalculia Assessment 
    J. Emerson, P. Babtie & B. Butterworth (2010) Continuum Publishing. ISBN 978-1441140852

“Maths Explained” developed by Steve Chinn, is a low-cost collection of teaching videos targeted at learners who find maths difficult. They are presented in a non age-specific way so should suit learners from age 7 through to adulthood. They can be accessed here:

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