I’ve always hated math. I’m bad at math. I still count on my fingers and can’t tell the “more-than” symbol from the one for “less than.” True confession: I haven’t been able to help one of my four kids with math homework since, oh, first grade.
Frankly, reporting and writing this story has been torture because it involves explaining things about…math. And numbers. Did I mention I hate math?
So when I heard there really is something called “math dyslexia,” I perked up.
Could I have math dyslexia? Could your child?
The short answer is that it’s still hard to know. There are no standard diagnostic tests for this brain-wiring glitch that makes it hard to learn basic arithmetic skills. But it’s a real, recognized learning disorder that’s only begun to get wider recognition by scientists and teachers in the past 10 to 15 years.
That’s about three decades behind research on reading dyslexia (the kind everyone’s heard of). It’s not clear yet if or how the two disorders are related. But they might be equally common—at least 7 to 10 out of every 100 people, researchers estimate.
Maybe the best thing to know about math dyslexia: We can help ALL kids avoid its pitfalls, scientists now believe.
And the earlier we start, the better. (Parents of toddlers and preschoolers, keep reading!)
First, meet the real term: “developmental dyscalculia”
That’s pronounced “dis-kal-CUE-lee-ah.” Right, not exactly a household name. (Then again, dyslexia wasn’t either, a generation ago.) It literally means “bad counting.”
“The core difficulty of dyscalculia is with the meaning of numbers—things like understanding symbols, quantity, sequencing, and basic number tasks,” says Daniel Ansari, a neuroscientist who heads the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Ontario’s Western University.
Dyscalculia is also described as lacking “number sense”—understanding the basics of how numbers work. Pioneering researcher Brian Butterworth of University College London calls it “number blindness,” similar to how some of us are color blind.
For example, your child might be able to count his toys: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But when you then ask how many toys he has, he has no idea—he can’t connect the act of counting to the meaning of it. Most kids can do this by age 3.5, Ansari says.
Early understanding of numbers predicts how well kids are able to do math calculations later, research shows.
Signs of trouble
It’s tricky to compare your child against a list of specific skills because kids’ abilities advance at different rates. All kids count on their fingers, for example. But a child with dyscalculia might have persistent trouble with the following:
In preschool and kindergarten:
Telling which of two numbers is larger
Putting numbers in order
Counting a small group of objects (like dots on a paper)
Counting in the right order
Understanding that “three dogs” is the same as “three cats” or “three wishes.”
Identifying Arabic numerals (1,2,3)
Connecting a numeral (“4”) to an amount (“four crayons”)
Estimating how many of something there are (quantity)
Moving past the stage of counting on fingers to more efficient strategies
In primary grades:
Learning and recalling math facts (2+2=4)
Doing basic single-digit addition and multiplication
Learning the sequence of steps to solve simple math problems
Using multiplication and arithmetic tables
All kids have to learn these skills. But kids with dyscalculia get stuck on them. They have more trouble with them compared to peers, then fall behind them.
Possibly because similar pathways in the brain are involved, people with dyscalculia may also be frustrated by other numerical or spatial tasks. For example:
Reading a clock face
Doing mental arithmetic
Reading a map (they might turn it in the direction it’s being used)
Knowing left and right
Remembering phone numbers and other data
Measuring or estimating temperature or speed
Lacking number sense isn’t just a math-class issue. It’s an everyday issue. Our kids use numbers all day long to buy things, play games, keep score, set the table….
What happens when kids’ confidence and self-esteem plummets
Math anxiety is a separate but related problem that’s also understudied, according to Ansari. It’s a “chicken-or-egg, which-causes-which question,” he says. You can have math anxiety due to bad early learning experiences (a harsh teacher, a bad start on a unit) without having dyscalculia. Or kids can fall behind, lose confidence, and perform even more poorly because of their dyscalculia. The result: They often think of themselves as “stupid” and “hopeless” at math, and fear it. Math anxiety, in turn, can make doing arithmetic even harder. Double trouble.
But as with reading dyslexia, the child is often quite bright. They often do well in other subjects. In fact, even some professional mathematicians say they once struggled with arithmetic, Ansari says.
“Math is numbers, but it’s also geometry, reasoning, algebra, calculus,” Ansari says. You can be bad at arithmetic and still learn these higher-level skills, he adds.
So there’s hope!
Propping up number sense is key
Helping all kids develop number literacy early in life can help minimize problems.
“Numbers are so obvious to adults; we use them without thinking. But number words are abstract things,” Ansari told me. “The number 3, for example, refers to three computers, three sounds, three snowflakes.”
“All kids need informal math at home,” he added. “We can all provide this more consciously, just the way we all read to our children.”
He suggests drawing attention to numbers in lots of positive ways:
Talk about numbers. Some toddlers hear as many as 93,000 number-related words a year, compared to just 1,500 for others, according to a study by University of Chicago psychologist Susan Levine. Hearing number talk at 14 to 30 months is one predictor of later math success, she found.
Ask your child to compare two things: “Which piece is bigger?” Count: “Here are two crackers.” “Oh look, three big birds.” Use lots of spatial words—like tall, short, curved, straight, circle, rectangle. Other Levine research shows this helps with later spatial problem-solving.
Have fun with numbers. Don’t give kids worksheets in hopes of bolstering their ability. Make it fun. “Play games in the car,” suggests Ansari. “Ask, ‘What comes between four and six? Which is more balloons, two or six?’” Play board games that involve counting, like Chutes and Ladders, or card games like War that involve recognizing numbers. Look for age-appropriate computer math games your child might like.
If you’re math anxious yourself, maybe find someone else to help with homework. Children of math-anxious parents learn less math over a school year and are more likely to be math-anxious themselves if their parents helped them with homework, showed a 2015 University of Chicago study. That’s because these parents may explain math less well. Or they may infect kids’ attitude by saying things like “I’m bad at math.” (Hmm, so maybe I was right to be hands-off! All of my kids are actually pretty great at math!)
If you suspect a problem…
Fair warning: As with reading dyslexia, it can be hard to find the right help. Actually harder, given the relative newness of this field. “The honest answer: We’re still clutching at straws,” Ansari told me.
A few pointers that can help:
Try a basic screening test. The Numeracy Screener is a free, two-minute pencil-and-paper test developed by Ansari and Nadia Nosworthy of Western University’s Numerical Cognition Laboratory. It doesn’t diagnose dyscalculia; it measures a child’s ability (in grades K to 3) to understand quantity, which has been shown to correlate to arithmetic skills.
Seek a professional assessment to rule out other problems. Unrelated issues, such as low IQ or ADHD, can also lead to poor math skills or a dislike of math. Start with your child’s doctor or teacher. Look for an educational therapist with specific experience in dyscalculia. They can run additional assessments and recommend supports.
Remember that the problem is deeper than motivation or attention or not liking math. It’s important to find low-pressure environments to tease skill deficits apart and help kids acquire skills, Ansari says. Helpful strategies in the classroom include allowing dyscalculic kids extra time for math work and letting them work at their own level. The less memorization and drilling that’s required early on the better, experts suggest, to give them a taste of success and confidence. Allowing calculators helps older students too.
Adding up success
“Even if a child doesn’t do well in arithmetic, there’s no reason to suspect a difficulty that can’t be fixed,” Ansari told me. “It’s just a starting point that shows we need to spend more time with a child to help him or her understand the meaning of numbers.”
And here’s why: Math abilities aren’t chiseled in stone. “The wonderful thing about the brain is its ability to change,” Ansari says. “In the reading field, it’s been shown that a child with dyslexia who gets reading remediation learns to use compensatory strategies and brain circuits normalize.”
The same thing seems true for math, he says: “Maybe the child won’t go into accounting, but most can reach a level of functional numeracy required in most walks of life.”
Or just maybe, with the right support, he or she will wind up as a brilliant professional mathematician—someone who isn’t so great at arithmetic but thrives at higher-order thinking.