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Dyscalculia: When Numbers are Hard to Define

Updated on May 20, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Dyscalculia - or mathematic disorder - is not a common term used by special education teachers. Its diagnosis is often rare, usually designated for students who show weakness in understanding and using math concepts and symbols. However, this term is often given when other disabilities such as a processing disorder cannot be determined as a cause of a student's learning disability. Still, the diagnosis is real, if not as common as difficulties in reading and writing are.

Of all the learning disabilities, Dyscalculia is the most ambiguous in meaning. It refers to a condition in which an individual has difficulties with mathematical calculations. However, that disability affects an individual's learning abilities in different ways. Also, mathematical disabilities are often the cause of different learning disorders - mostly visually related disabilities such as visual processing or visual -spatial.

Why the Ambiguity?

According to the National Center for Learning Disability, there is a wide range of learning disabilities affecting a person's ability to understand math. They also claim there is no single form of math disability, and difficulties may vary from person to person. If a person had language processing difficulties, that person may have problems with reading the problems or understanding the symbols often used in math. On the other hand, if the person has problems with memory (long and/or short), he/she will struggle with remembering facts and keep a sequence of steps in the proper order.

The ambiguity of the categorization of this particular learning disorder often makes it difficult for a special educator to determine if a student will need special education services. And if that student needs it, it's not clear what type of accommodation or modifications are needed.

...the student with this learning disorder will mentally mix up numbers

A Visual Processing Disorder?

What is known is that visual processing appears to be the culprit in most cases. Often a student with dyscalculia will have a difficult time visualizing numbers and situations involving word problems or application.

Also, the student with this learning disorder will mentally mix up numbers. Other problems that have been associated with dyscalculia is sequencing - the ability to put things or tasks in order; and having difficulties remembering specific facts or formulas for completing a math concept.

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Diagnosing Dyscalculia

So how does one diagnose dyscalculia? There are numerous ways one can be diagnosed with this. A person with this disorder may:

♦ Have spatial problems and difficulties aligning numbers into columns.

♦ Have trouble with sequences of numbers and concepts (left/right orientation) (wve.edu, 2009)

♦ Confuse similar numbers (with its sound or appearance); word problems.

♦ Have difficulties using a calculator.

♦ Have difficulties with abstract concepts of time and direction; recall schedules or keep track of time.

♦ Lack "big picture/whole picture" thinking (can't grasp or picture mechanical process).

♦ Have inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

♦ Be unable to grasp concepts, rules formula, sequence (order of operation) and basic addition. Have poor memory (i.e. long term memory on concept mastery).

The Difficulty of Diagnosis

Still, dyscalculia is not often the first designation a psychologist or a special educator may give the person with this condition. If it can be proven the person will be given a learning disability such as visual processing disorder (since it appears that this condition may be more associated with) or something else. When there's nothing else there to definitively prove it's one of those learning disorders, dyscalculia is written down as the person's learning disability if the one area affected happens to be math skills .

Dyscalculia may affect students at different ages in different ways. In early childhood, a child's disability will affect the learning of numbers, sorting objects by shape, size or color; recognizing groups and patterns; compare and contrast using concepts of "smaller/bigger" or "taller/shorter" (NCLD, 2006).

School-age children will have difficulties solving basic math problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Also, they'll have problems with math facts (i.e. the times table (NCLD, 2006)).

If mastery of math concepts is not taken care of in the early stages, teens and adults with dyscalculia will be unable to move on to do advanced concepts. Also, if the math disorder is also a language processing disorder, the individual will struggle with math vocabulary.

Academic Strategies

There are strategies that can be used to help an individual with dyscalculia. A teacher or parent accommodating an individual may do the following:

♦ Use graphic organizers (picture, charts or graphs) to help the student "visualize" the math concepts.

♦ Have students read the problem aloud as a means of triggering their auditory skills.

♦ Relate problems to real-life situations.

♦ Have them use graph paper to organize the numbers for the problems and answers.

♦ Provide uncluttered worksheets.

♦ Messy papers can throw them off task and confuse them.

♦ Allow extra time (especially for processing) for students to memorize math facts.

♦ Use repetition (repeat a question) as often as possible.

♦ Apply more one-on-one instruction, if possible.

♦ Allow for time and flexible setting for tests.

♦ Allow for verbalization of answers by the student.


Dyscalculia is not the most common learning disability out there. It's rarely used - and is preferred not be used by psychologists and special educators because of its lack of any clear, measurable criteria. Still, this condition exists, even if it is not truly understood.

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Other Work Cited

. West Virginia University, "Dyscalculia (or Dyscalcula)" Retrieved 2009: www.as.wvu.edu/~scidis/dyscalcula

© 2016 Dean Traylor

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    • jgshorebird profile image

      jgshorebird 11 months ago from Southeastern U.S.

      I learned something. Thanks.

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