Dyscalculia is like dyslexia as a word. It just means difficulty with calculation. The “calculus” part comes from the Greek for pebble, because the Greeks often taught maths by placing pebbles on the sand.
At present, though, it doesn’t seem to be recognised, respected or diagnosed like dyslexia. Very few students are recognised as dyscalculic (in the UK and Singapore – possibly Israel is an exception, where it is more widely recognised). Very few students are diagnosed with it, and I doubt if young people who find maths hard are respected in the way dyslexics are now in Singapore. If you find maths difficult, the current reasoning would say that it is because you haven’t tried hard enough, or not listened to the teacher, or you are not that good at reasoning.
We should not forget that it has taken a long time for dyslexia to be widely recognized as a genuine learning difficulty. As an educational psychologist working in the UK, it wasn’t widely accepted until the late 1990’s. In Singapore understanding and recognition has steadily increased but many parents and some teachers have only become aware of it quite recently.
In Singapore understanding and recognition has steadily increased but many parents and some teachers have only become aware of it quite recently.
Could dyscalculia be much more widely recognised than it is?
There are different theories about what causes it. We haven’t yet reached the point in dyscalculia research that was reached in the 1990’s for dyslexia when it became almost undoubted that phonological processing difficulty was the most common cause. One theory is that dyscalculia stems from a “numerosity” weakness in the horizontal part of the intraparietal sulcus (hIPS) area of the brain.
|1. Left Angular Gyrus (AG) – plays a role in the rapid retrieval of facts.
|2. Left Intraparietal Sulcus (IPS) – plays a role in calculation.
|3. Right Intraparietal Sulcus (IPS) – activates during calculations and when we compare the differences between tow sets of objects and is shown to be less active in children with learning differences
Our maths skills are inevitably built upon this pre-language area, which we use to make quantity judgements. If you have a slow and less efficient hIPS you are likely to be dyscalculic. Prof. Butterworth, a renowned expert on dyscalculia and to some extent Prof. Dehaene, a mathematician and neuroscientist, argue this theory from their neuro-scientific work.
Other researchers suggest a more multi-causal model. Prof. Geary, for example, says that there can be three subtypes, those who have difficulty remembering procedures (often because of verbal working memory weakness), a semantic memory subtype (who have difficulty retrieving number facts from long-term memory, and a visuo-spatial subtype who don’t find it easy to visualise number or quantity.
There were similar issues in dyslexia research (and they have not entirely disappeared) so maybe we will find there is one single root cause for most dyscalculia. But maybe not. It certainly matters because we currently lack agreement about how to help children with “maths learning difficulty” (MLD, the most common name for the difficulty).
If a child has dyslexia, and needs help with maths, we look at how much difficulty the child has and if the child needs help we offer weekly classes in the DAS maths programme. This is because it is certainly true that if you are dyslexic you are more than averagely likely to have MLD as well.
DAS does recognise maths learning difficulty but we don’t expect a separate diagnosis. If a child has dyslexia, and needs help with maths, we look at how much difficulty the child has and if the child needs help we offer weekly classes in the DAS maths programme. This is because it is certainly true that if you are dyslexic you are more than averagely likely to have MLD as well.
The coincidence suggests common causes. DAS has recently joined in the international effort to understand dyscalculia, through our own maths research programme. We are hoping this year to extend our understanding of the difficulties children in Singapore face with word problems.
Singapore maths is famously well taught and also pretty hard, mainly because of the curriculum pace (children have to learn more at slightly earlier stages in Singapore) and because of the focus on problems, which usually involves dealing with quite complex words. So Singapore is an interesting place to study MLD.
We hope to understand better why dyslexia and dyscalculia are different because we can then do more to help students who struggle with maths. We also hope to understand how they are alike, because some of what we have learned in helping improve reading and writing can perhaps assist us in teaching maths.
I would be very interested in hearing from parents about their children’s (or their own) experiences learning maths in Singapore. Do you think dyslexia and dyscalculia are more alike or more different?
Learn more about DAS Maths Programme here.
About the Author:
Dr Tim Bunn
Consulting Educational Psychologist (2016)
Rex House Learning Centre