Dyscalculia - Math Dyslexia

Dyscalculia is a broad term for severe difficulties in math and includes all types of math problems ranging from inability to understand the meaning of numbers to inability to apply math principles to solve problems. Just as dyslexia refers to individuals who struggle with reading, dyscalculia refers to individuals of average intelligence who struggle with mathematical concepts and problems.

According to the British Dyslexia Association, dyslexia and dyscalculia can occur both independently of each other and together. It is believed that dyscalculia, like dyslexia, involves the language and visual processing centers of the brain.

"Evidence suggests learning disabilities such as dyscalculia may be inherited or can be caused by problems with brain development" ("Dyscalculia - What is Dyscalculia? Math Learning Disabilities," by Ann Logsdon, About.com).

The symptoms can range from a poor understanding and confusion about the mathematical symbols to difficulty with mental math, estimation, and directions. The most detrimental is the inability to understand the meanings of numbers and their quantities. In an article by Nanci Bell and Kimberly Tuley called, "Imagery the Sensory-Cognitive Connection for Math" they discuss how the real issue is an inability to form the mental images from the concrete concept of numbers in order to process mathematical concepts. They state: "Mathematics is cognitive process--thinking--that requires the dual coding of imagery and language. Imagery is fundamental to the process of thinking with numbers. Albert Einstein, whose theories of relativity helped explain our universe, used imagery as the base for his mental processing and problem solving. Perhaps he summarized the importance of imagery best when he said, "If I can't picture it, I can't understand it."

"For the people who 'get' math, the language of numbers turns into imagery. They use internal language and imagery that lets them calculate and verify mathematics; they 'see' its logic."

"Imaging is the basis for thinking with numbers and conceptualizing their functions and their logic. The Greek philosopher Plato said, 'And do you not know also that although they [mathematicians] make use of the visible forms and reason about them, they are thinking not of these, but of the ideals which they resemble ... they are really seeking to behold the things themselves, which can be seen only with the eye of the mind?"

"Mathematics is the essence of cognition. It is thinking (dual coding) with numbers, imagery and language; reading/spelling is thinking with letters, imagery and language. Both processes, often mirror images of each other, require the integration of language and imagery to understand the fundamentals and then apply them. Dual coding in math, just as in reading, requires two aspects of imagery: symbol/numeral imagery (parts/details) and concept imagery (whole/gestalt)."

Those who have dyscalculia have very similar issues as those with dyslexia and that is why it is often called "math dyslexia". Those with this problem struggle understanding the symbols (the written numbers) that represent prescribed amounts. They must work with hands-on manipulatives, practice connecting visual imagery with the concrete representation and practice language that is logical to help make that connection. Their issues may also be with math symbols and directions. These learners must make that connection and then master the foundational skills of addition and subtraction before any more advanced processes. This needs to be explicit, sequential, multi-sensory instruction, just as it does for those with dyslexia. Sequencing and imprinting are issues for both so the type of instruction is vital. Learners must have repeated practice and mastery of the foundational math skills before they can move to the more-complex mathematical problems. There are several computer-based programs that have been found to be very helpful with dyscalculia. Here are just a few:

  • Dots2Track
  • Numberline
  • Math U See

The most important information gathered from the research is the same as what was discovered about dyslexia: These problems have nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. For so many years, the misconception has been that if people struggle with reading or math then they are stupid. It is enlightening to know that is not the case. It is an issue with the way the brain processes and there are resources for help and remediation. There is hope.