by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
What Is Dyscalculia?
Adults and children with poor memory and below average skills for all things mathematical
may have characteristics or symptoms of a disorder known as “dyscalculia.” Their
learning disability may be overlooked because the adults and children experiencing
this difficulty may be of average to high intelligence. They may have strong reading
and language skills, good visual memory for the printed word, and may excel in the
creative arts and sciences (Dyscalculia.org, 2008). Dyscalculia may not easily be
identified as a problem or disability because the student may not have any other
language or physical disabilities that would generally help point to a math disability.
Parents and teachers unfamiliar with dyscalculia may brush off poor math performance
as “Math just isn’t his/her thing.”
What Are Some Signs of Dyscalculia?
Signs of dyscalculia may surface as early as preschool when teachers ask students
to memorize their phone number and birthday, recall simple number line counting,
sing number songs, etc. The child may be able to recite the information one day,
forget it by the next day, and then must relearn everything again. Remember, students
with dyscalculia may have normal or accelerated language acquisition in verbal,
reading, and writing skills. They may exhibit good visual memory for print, but
struggle with the simplest math skills.
Some symptoms of dyscalculia you might observe, particularly in younger children,
include difficulty: understanding place value, quantity, number lines, carrying,
borrowing, and positive/negative values; solving word problems; sequencing information;
organizing steps in math operations; handling money and making change; recognizing
or using patterns when adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing; understanding
time concepts such as days, weeks, months, seasons, quarters, or telling time on
an analog clock; and keeping place value of numbers lined up on a page for solving
different operations, especially long division (LDA of California and UC Davis M.I.N.D.
Institute “Q.U.I.L.T.S.” Calendar 2001-2002 as cited in Learning Disabilities Association
of America, 2010).
Older students may exhibit the above symptoms, as well as have difficulty: recalling
schedules; being on time; recollecting names and faces; calculating mental math
(math facts, time, and money); grasping concepts of applying rules, formulas, or
a sequence of operations (algebra); visualizing hands on a clock; recalling or finding
geographical locations on a map (pointing out states, countries, continents, oceans,
etc.); learning the finger placement on an instrument or sight-reading music; keeping
up with physical directions in dance (step sequences) or athletic games; remembering
how to keep score in games or losing track of whose turn it is; and planning ahead
strategically to win a game like tic-tac-toe, chess, checkers, or card games (Dyscalculia.org,
How Can Teachers and Parents Help?
Parents should voice concerns to teachers regarding their child’s poor math performance
early on, especially when the student is performing in an average range or excelling
in other subjects. Some strategies for helping students cope with mathematical difficulties
are to: allow the use of counting on the fingers and use of scratch paper; allow
and encourage students to draw diagrams or pictures of math concepts; allow and
encourage the use of graph paper to help keep place values of numbers in line; use
colored pencils to distinguish problems; use manipulative counters, tokens, etc.
to help calculate basic operations; use mnemonic devices to learn math concepts
or order of operations (as in algebra with the acronym - Please
Dear Aunt Sally
- parentheses, exponents,
add, subtract); help students memorize math
facts by using music and/or rhyme; drill and practice concepts on a computer, on
paper, or with flash cards; and help students connect math concepts to all aspects
of daily living (preparing recipes, reading and calculating time schedules, paying
bills, making change, etc.) (LDA of California and UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute “Q.U.I.L.T.S.”
Calendar 2001-2002 as cited in Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2010).
Parents and teachers should keep documentation and copies of papers that seem to
mirror the student’s difficulties with concepts that should have been well mastered
by his/her chronological age. Documentation of difficulties and the strategies already
in use to remediate math skills is important to present to the special education
team before administering a formal evaluation. Within this evaluation, the specific
skills that the child struggles with will surface. Once the evaluation identifies
these skills, teachers and parents can work together to help the student manage
the dyscalculia disorder. Some schools provide tutoring programs with staff members
or student peers before or after school. Hiring a tutor or therapist familiar with
teaching strategies for those with dyscalculia may be another alternative.