What is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is the ”Mystery of why able children are unable to do arithmetic.” Quote from Prof. Brian Butterworth, who is an international expert on dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is a genetic, neurodevelopmental disorder. Click here to download a ‘What is dyscalculia pamphlet’.

There are many branches of Mathematics, Arithmetic being a relatively un-important one. Dyscalculic children may have higher order Mathematical skills, for example, mathematical reasoning, analysis and synthesis and so may excel in branches of Mathematics, which do not depend on Arithmetic.  There are many famous people who are said to have had dyscalculia, for example Albert Einstein.

However, Arithmetic is one of the first branches of Mathematics children study in Primary school. Because dyscalculics have a poor ‘Number sense’ this can have serious implications on their self confidence and self esteem and they can even develop mental health issues such as Maths anxiety.

Many of these issues can be avoided if dyscalculia is identified early and appropriate strategies adopted to help the child.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen currently in Victoria for a number of reasons:

  • There is little awareness of dyscalculia in the community and amongst parents and teachers.
  • Parents and teachers of children who have been identified with dyslexia tend to assume that the difficulties the child is experiencing with Maths are caused by their dyslexia and so these Maths difficulties are not addressed.
  • There is a close association amongst all the ‘dys’s, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia and ADHD to the extent that to have only one learning disability should be considered the exception rather that the rule.  For example, over 50% of dyslexics are likely to also have dyscalculia.

Identification of dyscalculia.

Informal methods

There are many informal methods that parents and teachers can use to help them identify students at risk of dyscalculia, at a reasonable cost. A comprehensive list of resources can be obtained from the British Dyslexia Association website


There is also a screener available from GL Assessment


Formal methods

Formal diagnosis of dyscalculia can be made by a psychologist (preferably one endorsed in the area of Educational and Developmental Psychology).

Diagnosis of any type of learning disability, including dyscalculia, typically includes a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational and family history; an evaluation of their response to academic intervention; as well as an administration, scoring and interpretation of cognitive ability and academic achievement tests.

Commonly used cognitive ability tests include the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Ability (WJCOG) and the Stanford-Binet (SB)

Although there are no formal diagnostic tests specifically for dyscalculia, on the BDA website there are suggestions for more formal identifications by Educational Psychologists.  The Routledge International Companion for Educational Psychologists recommends Keymath or the Test of Early Mathematics Ability (TEMA), whilst the Comprehensive Mathematical Abilities Test (CMAT) is aimed at older students.  The Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) and the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Academic Achievement (WJACH) can also be used to measure attainment in mathematics.

Strategies to help dyscalculic students

Many children have more than one LD. As with all children with LDs, strategies should concentrate on strengths to help their self esteem and self confidence. 

Many children with dyscalculia have Maths anxiety.  One of the principle characteristics of this is avoidance of what is causing the anxiety, which is a characteristic common in generalized anxiety.  In order to allay the anxiety a games based approach could be taken.  There are many games in Ronit Bird’s books.  For example, Bird, R 2007, The dyscalculia toolkit, Paul Chapman Publishing LTD., London. (She also has a Youtube channel).

A strategy, called Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) is also helpful for all students but particularly the 20% of students who are estimated to experience Maths difficulties.  Concrete materials such as paddle pop sticks, Cuisenaire rods or dominoes can be used. More details can be found on the website http://www.coedu.usf.edu/main/departments/sped/mathvids/strategies/cra.htm

‘The purpose of teaching through a concrete-to-representational-to-abstract sequence of instruction is to ensure students truly have a thorough understanding of the math concepts/skills they are learning. When students who have math learning problems are allowed to first develop a concrete understanding of the math concept/skill, then they are much more likely to perform that math skill and truly understand math concepts at the abstract level.’

How it feels to have dyscalculia

Samantha Abeel has written a very moving memoir of what it feels like to have dyscalculia.  (Abeel, S 2014, My Thirteenth Winter: A memoir.)

Click here to download personal responses from adults and students about how it feels to have dyscalculia.  If you have dyscalculia and would like to include your personal response please send it to Speld Vic.


Video: My world without numbers | Line Rothmann | TEDxVennelystBlvd


Written by Ann Williams  Kate Jacobs 2015