So What is dyscalculia?
There have always been plenty of students who struggle with mathematics, however in recent years research and studies have shown that this may be due to a neurocognitive disorder called dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a neurological disorder that prohibits the brain from understanding basic numerical and arithmetic concepts.
According to the National Center For Learning Disabilities (NCLD) – “Dyscalculia refers to a wide range of lifelong learning disabilities involving math. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary from person to person. And, it can affect people differently at different stages of life.” – ncld.org
One can think of Dyscalculia as the math equivalent to dyslexia. In fact the British Dyslexia Association states just that while also providing information to help people understand that these are truly separate learning disabilities…
“Dyscalculia is like dyslexia for numbers. But unlike dyslexia, very little is known about its prevalence, causes or treatment. People with dyscalculia experience great difficulty with the most basic aspects of numbers and arithmetic…50-60% of people with dyslexia do have difficulties with maths. Not surprisingly, difficulty in decoding written words can transfer across into a difficulty in decoding mathematical notation and symbols.
For some dyslexic pupils, however, difficulty with maths may in fact stem from problems with the language surrounding mathematical questions rather than with number concepts – e.g. their dyslexia may cause them to misunderstand the wording of a question. Dyscalculia and dyslexia occur both independently of each other and together. -British Dyslexia Association (Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and Maths)
According to a study published in the journal Science (Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education), dyscalculia is estimated to be prevalent in 7% of the population. Many people learning of this math disability find it interesting that it can be as common as dyslexia. However, it is also very frustrating given that it is much more difficult to diagnose and far less understood. Therefore it is important for parents, teachers, and educators to inform themselves and find valuable sources of authority information on the subject. With that in mind, Mathnasium of Cincinnati will continue to publish information about dyscalculia as it becomes available.
Why is Dyscalculia just now being understood?
Even though dyslexia and dyscalculia are very similar, dyscalculia is fairly newly discovered compared to dyslexia. Dyscalculia was first suggested in 1974 by researcher Kosc, which is almost 100 years after Oswald Berkhan identified dyslexia in 1881.
Another reason why dyscalculia is less understood is that research and studies on math disabilities are far less common compared to the number of studies conducted on reading disabilities. It has been shown that studies on readings disabilities out number the studies of math disabilities by 14 to 1.
One of the reasons for the large discrepancy is that that many people put a stronger emphasis on literacy compared to numeracy.
Daniel Ansari, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of Western Ontario states “People freely admit at dinner parties that they are poor at math, while few would admit that they are a poor reader.”
The social emphasis on literacy has driven studies in reading disabilities and has left studies in math disabilities to lag behind. Because of this many student with dyscalculia go through school without being diagnosed.
How does this dyscalculia affect a student’s learning?
Dyscalculia can vary greatly depending on the person but is usually broken down into the two major areas, visual-spatial difficulties and language processing difficulties. Visual-spatial processing deals with organizing visual information in patterns and understanding how these patterns relate to each other. This makes it difficult to follow multi-step problems such as long division and remember simple concepts like which direction is left and right.
Language processing difficulties results in having trouble with making sense and processing what a person sees and hears. Some young children with language processing skill have difficulty processing numbers symbols to real world scenarios such as seeing the symbol “3” and understand it is the same thing as three dogs or three apples. Both of these difficulties affects a person very basic number fluency and makes it very difficult for them to master higher mathematical concepts.
How can a student be tested?
A trained professional can test a student to see if the student has a learning disability. These test consist of the student being interviewed on a large range of math skills on concepts. This test is usually completed using pencil and paper but the trained professional must fully understand how the student understands and uses number sense to correctly diagnose a learning disability.
There is currently no formal test for Dyscalculia however there are a variety of screenings and resources available…
Panamath: Justin Halberda and Ryan Ly from John Hopkins University created an online test to identify students with dyscalculia (to the right). The program tests the student’s ability to quickly ascertain and compare quantities, also know as number sense. The program shows a screen of blue and yellow dots for less than a second the user then must state whether there were more yellow or blue dots. A student who has poor number sense has a high chance of being diagnosed with Dyscalculia. The test is available for free at www.panamath.org
Dyscalculia Screener: Professor Brian Butterworth, the primary contributing author contact from the above sited Science Journal “Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education”, has developed a useful diagnostic screener for teachers. More information can be found at the GL Assessment website at www.gl-assessment.co.uk