Middle School

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Chalkboard with math equations

What Is It?

noun [dys-cal-cu-li-a] – impaired ability to learn grade-appropriate mathematics

Most of us know that dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects reading and writing skills, but its math-challenged alter ego, dyscalculia, is light years away from being a household word.

Dyscalculia is also known as a mathematics disability or disorder. Experts say about three to 11 percent of the general population experiences it – about the same as the rate of dyslexia. And two-thirds of those with dyscalculia also have dyslexia. What’s more, dyscalculia has also been found to co-occur with attention deficit disorders.

There is much less research on dyscalculia than dyslexia, despite the high incidence, says Daniel Ansari, who studies the disorder as the Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario. One reason? There may be less demand for dyscalculia solutions because it has somehow become socially acceptable to be ‘useless’ at math, says Vancouver dyscalculia tutor, Susan Hall. It is, for example, considered nowhere near as devastating as being unable to read, she says.

In his ongoing research, however, Dr. Ansari says he hopes to pinpoint early predictors of dyscalculia, with an eye to early diagnosis and remediation. Burgeoning research in the field, using brain scans, has located the disorder in the brain’s parietal cortex. This is where experts believe structural and functional abnormalities create a disconnect between interpreting numeric symbols and the quantities they represent – much like a child with dyslexia will have trouble accessing the sound of a letter of the alphabet.

Dr. Ansari says all parents need to understand that instilling basic math concepts should be as much a part of daily life as the bedtime book. Everything from setting the table to counting out bus fare can boost a child’s math comfort level. In the meantime, children suffering serious math difficulties often find treatment within dyslexia treatment circles.

A Case Study

Cassidy Engleby, 11, had severe problems with math since Grade 1, when the concept of addition eluded her.

The Coquitlam, BC girl, “…did not get the concept of numbers. They made no sense to her,” says Cassidy’s mom, Judy Larocque. “Cassidy spent a lot of Grade 1 with headaches and stomachaches due to the stress and frustration she felt in the classroom.”

In addition to a math disorder, Cassidy also struggles with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, but working with Susan Hall on both the dyslexia and dyscalculia fronts has worked wonders. Hall’s private program is called the Davis method, named for creator Ron Davis, himself a dyslexic and the founder of an international dyslexia association. The system relies on tactile props such as clay balls to help children visualize concepts such as adding.

For Cassidy, the method has given her the boost she needed to progress in school. “Cassidy made the honour roll on her last report card,” says Larocque. “I would not hesitate to say yes, it worked. Cassidy is sporting a B in math, when in the past it was difficult to stay at a C.”

Is Your Child Dyscalculic?

The following symptoms often appear in primary school, according to aboutdyscalculia.org

1. Delay In Counting

Five- to sevenyear-old dyscalculic children show less understanding of basic counting principles than their peers (for example, they may think that it doesn’t matter what order objects are counted in).

2. Delay In Using Counting Strategies For Addition

Dyscalculic children tend to kee pusing inefficient strategies for calculating addition facts much longer than their peers.

3. Difficulties In Memorizing Arithmetic Facts

Dyscalculic children have great difficulty in memorizing simple addition, subtraction and multiplication facts (e.g. 5 + 4 = 9), and this difficulty persists up to at least the age of thirteen.

Symptoms Still Being Researched:

1. Lack of ‘Number Sense’

Dyscalculic children may have a fundamental difficulty in understanding quantity. They are slower at even very simple quantity tasks such as comparing two numbers (which is bigger, seven or nine?), and saying how many there are in groups of one to three objects.

2. Less Automatic Processing of Written Numbers

For most of us, reading the symbol ‘7’ immediately causes our sense of quantity to be accessed. In dyscalculics this access appears to be slower and takes more effort. Thus, dyscalculic children may have difficulty in linking written or spoken numbers to the idea of quantity.



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