Are you sure you want your kid diagnosed? (Part 3)

Dyscalculia: Just the facts, man!

Dyscalculia affects roughly 5% of the population; however, it still runs the risk of becoming another over-used ambiguous educational term with little defining clarity as to what it actually is. Let's try to make more sense of it by looking into what we do know...

Broken down into its etymological roots, the term dyscalculia simply means "a difficulty -dys - with maths - calculia". While this might seem obvious, it is important to remember that it is specific to maths skills (intuition, number sense, counting, operations, concepts, processes and steps). This means that a child’s difficulty in maths are caused by their dyscalculia, not general learning difficulties or brain injury. Perhaps the clearest way of defining it is this:


As a result, students with dyscalculia will have difficulties with their maths intuition (a.k.a. number sense) and need more time with concrete and representational supports to make up for this. Because of this, future maths learning will likely be affected.

Mahesh Sharma talks about the different stages of maths learning we progress through to mastery. He points out that we move through stages and that each must be mastered to confidently move to the next. Here they are, beginning with Intuition.

Early Years Practitioners are in a strategic position to recognise difficulties at the intuition level and address these by providing rich classroom experiences that bridge concrete resources to the abstract (written numbers – e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4…) – including a wide range of concrete materials.

By linking the concrete with the abstract through representational methods, we help students build their skills on a much more solid foundation (no pun intended). This is often referred to as the CRA approach to teaching maths (concrete – rep

resentational – abstract) because it informs our students’ starting points.

While there is much to say on dyscalculia (and I am by no means the top expert in the land), I have a developed a good understanding of these difficulties, how to teach, explain and break concepts down because I also found complex operations challenging.

What about diagnosing my kid?

In all matters regarding your own kids, the choice is yours and the decision to pursue this may involve an educational psychologist, a doctor, the school and other professionals. However, I recommend exploring many routes prior to a diagnosis of dyscalculia or any learning condition. In my next post I will highlight some options to explore prior to seeking diagnosis.

Some traits you may see in your students with maths difficulties might include:

  • A delay in counting skills (especially counting backward)

  • Use of inefficient methods for addition (this is age dependent)

  • Difficulties memorising maths facts, including navigating back and forth in 2s and 3s

  • Slow at recognising representational number patterns (e.g. numbers on dice)

  • Fluency (speed) and accuracy of calculations, including recalling number facts and basic rules

  • Difficulties progressing with whole-class curriculum

  • Direction and orientation challenges (left and right)

What do we do about it?

Much of the work I do in primary and secondary schools across the county focuses heavily on CRA. One common tool I use regularly are Dienes Blocks (base-tens). Most schools have these laying around somewhere, but I find it is a powerful resource because the shapes can be re-drawn when a student moves into the representational and abstract stages. The ones can be re-drawn as dots, the tens as lines, and the hundreds as squares (see below). This provides students with a clear link to the concrete number. For example, when linking Dienes to drawings the number 145 is drawn:

For students who struggle, I often find that this basic understanding of our base-10 system is what needs addressing. I like to bring students back to this conceptual understanding to help re-build a solid foundation of number. Otherwise, we simply build other knowledge on a faulty foundation.

Basic teaching principles that guide me in my work is the acronym SLOOM:

S- Scaffolded teaching (modelling, shared learning, opportunities for independent practice).

LO- Little and often (rather than one very long lesson, break up learning into shorter sessions that equate to the same time)

O- Overlearning (repetition)

M- Multisensory (use of a variety of concrete materials and games to reinforce number and place value)

Some students will need SLOOM teaching much longer than others, and it will be important to recognise where your students are on the CRA continuum.

For more information specific to dyscalculia and identification, have a look at or The British Dyslexia Association. GL Assessment also offer a valuable online screening tool available in bundles for your school or home. I recommend the screener prior to consulting an educational psychologist for assessment.