How do you help pupils who show symptoms of dyscalculia? This SENCO Week highlights the main issues and gives advice to both SENCOs and classroom teachers

Most people these days have heard of dyslexia, but what about dyscalculia? In layman’s terms, this can be described as a condition like dyslexia, but involving difficulties with numbers instead of letters. Much less is known about dyscalculia than is now known about dyslexia but it’s important for SENCOs to understand the implications and to be able to advise colleagues about how to support pupils who experience problems associated with numbers. This week we highlight the main issues and provide details of where to go for further information.

Support for SENCOs
The DfES defines dyscalculia as: ‘A condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence.’

Pupils with dyscalculia struggle with the most basic aspects of numbers and arithmetic, though many achieve good or even excellent levels in other areas of learning. More commonly, however, children with dyscalculia also have dyslexia; not surprisingly, difficulties in decoding written words can predispose an individual to have difficulties in decoding mathematical notation and symbols. (For some dyslexic pupils, difficulty with maths may in fact stem from problems with the language surrounding mathematical questions rather than with number concepts themselves, causing them to misunderstand the wording of a question.)

The strategies for dealing with dyscalculia will be fundamentally the same, whether or not the learner is also dyslexic. The important thing is that a child’s specific difficulties are recognised and appropriate interventions put into place to help him or her make progress in this important area of the curriculum.

Identifying children with dyscalculia
There is a dyscalculia screener available, designed by Professor Brian Butterworth (www.nfer.ac.uk). This test is useful because it depends very little on other cognitive skills (such as reading, language or short-term memory) or on a learner’s educational experience. It makes it possible to assess a child’s numerical potential independently of their abilities in other areas and has the advantage of being useable for all age groups.

In the classroom, teachers can be aware of the areas of weakness which might indicate dyscalculia, such as difficulties with:

  • simple computation
  • reading and writing (larger) numbers and translating figures into words (and vice-versa)
  • learning multiplication tables
  • recognising and understanding symbols
  • choosing the appropriate operation for a particular problem
  • identifying shapes (especially those presented ‘off-centre’)
  • setting out work correctly (adherence to columns, for example)
  • using number lines and counting accurately (and backwards)
  • telling the time and working out problems involving time
  • doing mental calculations
  • working out money calculations
  • spotting patterns
  • remembering steps in multi-stage processes.

Support for teachers
As a SENCO, you can support colleagues by acknowledging these issues and finding ways to address them. Whole-class teaching approaches (as recommended by the National Numeracy Strategy) can be inappropriate for dyscalculic children; rapid-fire questions and requesting explanations for their answers in front of everyone, for example, will inevitably cause stress and embarrassment.

The list of strategies below might provide some useful starting points:

  • link mathematics to familiar and relevant (practical) contexts
  • avoid moving a child onto higher-level tasks before easier levels have been fully understood
  • give pupils explicit instruction in strategy and then support their practice
  • use a variety of objects, images and models
  • encourage children to discuss and explain in order to support the development of their mathematical reasoning
  • be on the lookout for misconceptions that may hinder progress and deal with them explicitly
  • encourage them to make choices about methods used
  • use peer tutoring – a child can often explain in terms more readily accessible to a classmate
  • support accurate recording by providing squared paper or prepared formats
  • establish a routine of ‘estimate – calculate – check’
  • display maths terms and symbols on the walls, using particular colours for different operations, eg all blue for subtraction
  • take time to explain vocabulary and check understanding
  • use number squares with alternate rows shaded for ease of use
  • use small numbers to introduce new concepts
  • provide time for practice and consolidation at each stage.

Materials available as part of the Springboard intervention may well be useful and the ability to work in a small group, with a slower pace and more time for consolidation, will certainly be beneficial for children with dyscalculia.

Finding useful resources

  • R-E-M
  • SEN Marketing
  • iANSYST
  • Dyslexia Action
  • BDA

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2009

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.

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