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  • Bee Schlotz

Dyscalculia/Math Learning Disability


(part of a series on Specific Learning Disability types)

Today we'll explore the basics of Dyscalculia, also known in some contexts as Math Learning Disability. I'll cover some basic descriptions of the condition, its roots and treatment, and give an example of a (fictional but based in reality) child with Dyscalculia and how he was treated.


Definitions and Root Causes

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual Fifth edition, which is used by psychologists and other mental health professionals worldwide, defines these as the core criteria for Dyscalculia

  • “Difficulties with number sense” or “mathematical reasoning “

  • Being “substantially and quantifiably” below expectations based on age.

  • These difficulties may go undetected until the students abilities are overtaxed by new academic demands.

  • The difficulties aren’t better explained by other variables (eg, vision acuity, lack of language proficiency, inadequate teaching etc)

The underlying core of this disorder seems to be working memory deficits, which results in impaired numerosity (number sense). Number sense is the intuitive grasp of the number line, and how it relates to things like place value, operations, fractions and so on. Generally, students move from a concrete understanding of the number line as represented in tallies, counting fingers and so on, to an abstract understanding of the number line which they can summon mentally. Students with MLD however generally lag behind on this transition, over relying on concrete representations of number.


The second subtype as described by the DSM has to do with applying math to situations correctly, as in word problems or real world contexts. These two subtypes are related but also seem to be distinct (as its quite common for a student to struggle with one but not the other), and caused by different cognitive issues - “mathematical reasoning” difficulties seem to be caused by underlying language difficulties.


What it looks like

Persistent low scoring on standardized math assessments and in-class assignments are how MLD is usually evaluated. Tests such as CogAT (cognitive ability test) can help identifying any underlying dysfunction, which helps direct interventions.


Working with Nguyet

Nguyet is 12, and has always struggled in math but was able to get by, but the introduction of prealgebra in junior high is rapidly falling behind. She tends to still surreptitiously count on her fingers when attempting mental math. She also has considerable anxiety around the subject, and frequently forgets math facts under pressure.


My instructional recommendations is using a tutoring program that gradually phases out physical manipulatives in its development of number sense. She needs extra assistance to make it from the concrete stage to the abstract, and that’s going to require a careful transition. The Making Math Real program is centered around how to slowly phase out the physical representations of the number, and although it’s a bit too rigid in places I think it might be a good fit here.


It’s also important that she develop some anxiety management strategies for dealing with the built up stress associated with the subject. There’s several good resources available along these lines, including the excellent “Anxiety Workbook for Teens” from Instant Help Books.

The main recommendation I’d make in terms of accommodation is for her to have access to a calculator on all or most math and science tests. In Junior High and High school, math tends to be focused much more on the higher order problem solving skills than on arithmetic (which is the primary difficulty in Nguyet's case).

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