What are Dyscalculia and Dyslexia?

Dyscalculia is a math learning disability that impairs an individual’s ability to learn number-related concepts, perform accurate math calculations, reason and problem solve, and perform other basic math skills.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Did You Know?

  • Up to 50% of 7th graders do not know their math facts
  • Approximately 70% to 80% of children with dyslexia also have a math learning disability
  • 50% to 60% of children with dyscalculia also have dyslexia
  • 75% of people with ADHD have at least one additional diagnosis

In 2009 I met Dyscalculia

As a pediatric psychologist and mother of two, volunteering in a local PVUSD school in 2009, I met many bright students in grades 3-6 for whom math was a mystery. These students would memorize math facts one day and forget them the next. They would confuse addition and multiplication. Memorizing math facts felt like a foreign language. The students had a limited understanding of currency, decimals, and simple fractions and they were frustrated. As a researcher, educator, and mom, I did what I always do, study the research. What I learned was concerning, then motivating, and inspiring.

What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a neurobiological condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetic skills. Dyscalculia is identified in the DSM-V as a specific learning disability that affects a child’s ability to understand, learn, and perform math and number-based operations.  Children with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures, (DfES, 2001).

  • Though research on prevalence is limited, it’s estimated that between 5 and 7% of elementary school-aged children may have dyscalculia. It’s also currently thought that dyscalculia occurs equally in both genders, trending slightly higher in females (childmind.org.)
  • According to National Center for Learning Disabilities, dyscalculia is a lifelong disorder that can be ameliorated with direct and systematic interventions.
  • The effects of dyscalculia vary from individual to individual therefore, a comprehensive evaluation may be needed for an accurate diagnosis.
  • Treatment protocols are individualized as a child who presents with difficulties in processing language may have a different presentation when compared with a child who has difficulties in spatial relationships (NCLD, 2006).
  • Dyscalculia is not accounted for by uncorrected visual or auditory acuity, other mental or neurological disorders, psychosocial adversity, lack of proficiency in the language of academic instruction, or inadequate educational instruction.

Typical Features of Dyscalculia – Haberstroh & Schulte-Körne (2019)

  • Difficulties in processing numbers and quantities, starting in the preschool years
    • The connection between a number (e.g., 2) and the quantity it represents (e.g., 2 apples) is made only with difficulty.
    • The relation between numbers and quantities (two apples and one apple = 2 + 1) is inadequately understood.
    • Ensuing difficulties in counting, comparing two numbers or quantities, rapid assessment, and naming of small quantities of dots, determining the position of a number on the number line, understanding the place-value system, and transcoding.
  • Difficulties with basic arithmetic operations and with further mathematical tasks
    • Computation rules are not understood because the underlying comprehension of numbers and quantities is lacking or insufficiently developed.
    • Deficits in the retrieval of math facts (e.g., the multiplication table) with which the answers to simple calculation problems can be recalled directly from memory, rather than needing to be calculated anew each time.
    • Lack of transition from computation by counting by ones to non-counting strategies.
    • These difficulties become worse with increasing mathematical complexity (larger number range, written computations, multiple calculating operations, word problems).

Students with Dyscalculia have difficulty understanding and holding onto quantity, sequencing, and number relationships.

Why Does My Child Appear to Struggle with More Than Math?

Learning challenges such as dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyspraxia are neurobiological in origin. If a child has one neurouniqueness they are likely to have two and if they have two, they are likely to have more. Co-existing diagnoses such as dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, executive function dysfunction, and dyspraxia are common when dyscalculia is present. We are not necessarily born to read, write and calculate, these are skills that are generally taught. Yet, the wiring to learn these skills with fluency, comprehension, and automaticity exists at birth.

Current research on the Connectome (brain wiring) suggests that during gestation, hubs of the brain do not sufficiently develop the opportunity for neural connections to facilitate skills including patterning, sequencing, rhythm, encoding, retrieval, and automatization, all related to reading and numeracy.

Foundational sensory-motor, phonological processing, and visual-auditory integration are impacted to various degrees resulting in learning challenges in 20% of the population and up to 50% for incarcerated persons (Bureau of Justice Statistics). According to NCLD 1 in 5 children and adults in the United States have a neurobiological learning disability, with dyslexia accounting for the highest contribution.

A Brief Overview of Dyslexia with Stacy Fretheim, MS, CCC-SLP

Children with Dyscalculia Often Have Difficulty with:

  • number sense
  • ordinality
  • cardinality
  • counting
  • combining and portioning numbers
  • understanding the meaning of one digit, one number, and one whole object (separated into parts)
  • constructing and deconstructing numbers
  • processing numerical order
  • encoding and retrieving math facts with fluency and automaticity
  • problem-solving
  • discriminating the key language context in word problems
  • understanding the structure of the base 10 system
  • mathematical organization (properly setting up problems and solving them step by step)
  • consolidating mathematical concepts in long-term memory (this puts a large burden on short-term memory)
  • visual-spatial deficits in graphing, drawing, and problem layout

What to look for – ChildMind.Org

A young child with dyscalculia may:

  • Have difficulty recognizing numbers
  • Be delayed in learning to count
  • Struggle to connect numerical symbols (5) with their corresponding words (five)
  • Have difficulty recognizing patterns and placing things in order
  • Lose track when counting
  • Need to use visual aids — like fingers — to help count

As math becomes a major part of the school day, students with dyscalculia are likely to:

  • Have significant difficulty learning math functions like addition and subtraction, multiplication tables, and more
  • Be unable to grasp the concepts behind word problems and other non-numerical math calculations
  • Have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a task
  • Struggle with math homework assignments and tests
  • Have difficulty keeping at grade-level in math
  • Struggle to process visual-spatial ideas like graphs and charts