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12/09

Dyscalculia: what parents need to know

What is dyscalculia?
The dictionary definition is “severe difficulty in making arithmetical calculations as a result of brain disorder”. It is a learning difficulty like dyslexia, but relating to maths instead of language. However, there is no clear-cut definition used by medical or educational practitioners.

Experts describe it as a person’s inability to understand basic number concepts or number relationships, recognise symbols and comprehend quantitative and spatial information. Many people liken the effects of the condition with numbers to that of dyslexia with words. There are many characteristics that overlap, but no proven link between the two, according to the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, which is funded by the Department for Education.

How many people have it?
An estimated 5 per cent of children suffer from dyscalculia, but only a tiny fraction of those are recognised or diagnosed. Figures relating to the adult population do not exist. Because of a lack of awareness, understanding and resources, many people go undiagnosed.

One researcher said in 2004 that 5-8 per cent of children had dyscalculia. Another study suggested that half of children with dyscalculia had siblings who were also affected by it.

Isn’t it just being bad at maths?
No. Campaigners to improve numeracy are keen that people do not overuse the label.

They say that far too many people in public life boast about being bad at maths, but would not openly admit to not being able to read. This breeds a culture of social acceptability about having poor maths skills, according to National Numeracy, a charity.

Mike Ellicock, its chief executive, said: “There is clearly work to do to improve dyscalculia awareness, identification and support yet it is also important to recognise that this is a relatively small subset of the wider issue that we are focused on; half the adult population have the numeracy level that we expect of primary school-children and this impacts upon individual life chances and costs the UK economy over £20 billion per year.”

Chris Humphries, former chairman of the charity, said at its launch: “It is simply not acceptable for anyone to say, ‘I can’t do maths’. It is a peculiarly British disease we aim to eradicate. It tends not to happen in other parts of the world and it’s hitting our international competitiveness.”

How do I tell if my child has dyscalculia, rather than just being not keen or not talented at maths?
Dyscalculia is the extreme low end of mathematics ability. Children with dyscalculia are within the lowest performing 5 per cent of children of similar age and level of education. Children with dyscalculia often struggle with basic arithmetic skills, and retrieving number facts (eg simple subtraction or division, recalling quickly the result of 4 x 4), and they might continue to use finger counting even in higher school grades.

Kinga Morsanyi, an academic from the school of psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, said of her recent work into children with the condition that 80 per cent of those she identified had other developmental problems, such as dyslexia or speech and language difficulties. She said: “As the current practice is to assign one diagnostic label to each child, this could partially explain why mathematics difficulties are so often ignored.”

The Good Schools Guide has listed a dozen early indicators of the condition, including a difficulty in recognising “how many” when looking at a small group of objects, an over-reliance on counting to arrive at number facts and answers, a persistent difficulty in recalling basic addition and multiplication facts, a problem recognising the symbols of maths, difficulties with the vocabulary and language of maths, and persistence of difficulties despite lots of help.

How can I get a diagnosis for myself or my child?
Children should be referred to an educational psychologist by their schools. Adults might have to use private educational psychology services.

Some tests assess computation skills, ie the ability to do maths efficiently and accurately. Others test maths fluency, such as having basic facts at their fingertips, like times tables. And other assessments can look at quantitative reasoning, using word problems to set out maths challenges.

What can be done once a diagnosis has been made?
If a child is diagnosed with dyscalculia, there is often no standard process in place to support them.

Dr Morsanyi says it is important to practise basic skills and to focus on learning at least the basic mathematics skills that are necessary for everyday life — for example, understanding simple arithmetic and percentages. Children may be more successful when they use calculators. They should be able to learn basic maths skills, but they may need much more practice than other children.

Nicola Woolcock, Education Correspondent

September 11 2018, 5:00pm, The Times

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