Dyscalculia – Why Numbers Don’t Make Sense


“I am twenty-five years old and I can’t tell time. I struggle with dialling phone numbers, counting money, balancing my cheque book, tipping at restaurants, following directions, understanding distances, and applying basic math to my everyday life…I have been diagnosed with dyscalculia.”

This extract from Samantha Abeel’s book, My Thirteenth Winter, describes vividly the plight of many who cannot make sense of numerals, have problems with visual and symbolic representation, are unable to carry out basic mathematical operations or have difficulty with spatial and numeric concepts. This condition is called dyscalculia pronounced – dis-kal-KYOO-lee-uh – which, in simplest terms, is a kind of number blindness similar to dyslexia or ‘dyslexia with numbers‘.

Those people who have dyscalculia do not understand what numbers mean and the condition is surprisingly common. According to Brian Butterworth, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College, London, “Severe difficulties in learning about numbers and arithmetic (dyscalculia) are probably as widespread as disorders of literacy development (dyslexia).”

Danial Ansari, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, stresses the importance of basic mathematical fluency as a core ingredient for success in life both socially and in the workplace. He cites a British Government report published in October 2008 that states that children suffering from dyscalculia lose on average 100 000 pounds sterling from their mean earnings throughout their lifetimes.

Parents of a child that has difficulty working with numbers

worry but do not know what to do or where to turn for help. First they need to be aware of the signs that a child may have dyscalculia…the most comprehensive list of such indicators is available from the National Centre for Learning Difficulties(2006). It includes difficulty with concepts of number in everyday life, organization of numbers and frequently organization in general, telling time, estimation of the duration of time and poor automatic recall of number facts.

Not all difficulties with mathematical fluency are due to dyscalculia. They may also be due to other causes such as: frequent absences from class, inappropriate teaching, social and emotional difficulties, and behavioral issues. Dyscalculia, unlike dyslexia, is not a difficulty that is commonly diagnosed, nor is there the same amount of accommodation or assistance in place to alleviate the problems. The child diagnosed with dyslexia often receives extra time, use of laptop etc. but for those diagnosed with dyscalculia, accommodation for their difficulties is not readily forthcoming. There are however, many children who are struggling and need help. What can be done for them?

What we do at Hils Learning.

Our approach is to find out where the problems lie and which elements of mathematics are understood or not. We do this through a number of strategic questions. However, we believe that we must adopt an individual approach for each person, to ensure that we cater to particular needs. We are convinced that it is pointless to use a methodology that did not work the first time, and that it is essential to find alternative, meaningful, approaches. From our questions, we first formulate a plan, and use a multisensory approach to overcome particular difficulties.

This means using manipulative materials such as games that involve math concepts, fraction tiles, dice for practice in addition, subtraction, and multiplication, timers for development of the concept of time, clocks for telling time, scales, measuring sticks, balls for counting, stepping stones for memory, clay for the development of many concepts and selected computer programs for reinforcement. With careful planning, integration of materials essential to concept building, recording, and repetition to cement basic skills we provide the security and opportunity for success. As the person achieves, we return to our tests to find the next troublesome area for the individual and the process will be repeated until the challenging topics are understood and the individual becomes more able to apply logic and to understand mathematics in a different way.

Abeel, S. (2003) My Thirteenth Winter. Scholastic , New York
Butterworth, B. & Yeo,D (2004) Dyscalculia Guidance. nferNelson, London

Softpedia – Why some keep failing math
Dyscalculia – National Center for Learning Disabilities (2006)

Published in: October 2009