Myth buster: The biggest misconceptions about dyscalculia

Recognition of dyscalculia is relatively recent in education. Research is only just beginning to take off. One of the exciting innovations we have now compared to the pioneering days of research into dyslexia is having increasingly sophisticated technology to study the brain. It's hard to deny evidence obtained from brain scans.

Myths arise from ignorance. Hopefully as our knowledge grows and becomes widely dispersed, myths will hold less and less credibility. The website: lists five common myths about dyscalculia. I have added my comments for each myth.

Myth #1: All children with dyscalculia have the same difficulties with maths.
There are many factors that contribute and combine to create difficulties, each at its own level of severity, for example, working memory and anxiety. The extra layer of complexity comes from the interactions, for example, anxiety can reduce working memory capacity, a slow retrieval of basic facts needed for a calculation can overload working memory so that there is not enough left to perform the calculation. This complexity has been recognised in research and has led to the observation that the problem is heterogeneous. This doesn't mean that there will not be a core of main contributors to the problems of dyscalculia and it doesn't mean that a diagnosis cannot be done. What is does mean is that the diagnostic protocol has to include all the critical factors.

Myth #2: Dyscalculia is another name for maths anxiety
Maths anxiety is one of the contributing factors. Although anxiety can be facilitative, for children and adults with dyscalculia it is going to be debilitative. It will exacerbate the problems, as in the working memory comments above, but it will also lead to a fear of maths and a complete withdrawal from anything that is perceived as mathematical. So, the outcome of extreme anxiety may look like an inability to do maths.

Myth #3: Dyscalculia is basically dyslexia for maths.
There are similarities in the factors that contribute to these difficulties and the two specific learning difficulties can occur in the same individual, but that is not always the case. Certain difficulties apply to both dyslexia and dyscalculia, for example, the prevalence of symbols and poor working memory. My early work (in the 1980s and 1990s) was about dyslexia and maths difficulties. There was less awareness back then of the term 'dyscalculia'. For example, the ratio of research papers on dyslexia to those on dyscalculia in the decade 1986 – 1995 was 22:1. Although the schools where I was Head or Principal were for (severely) dyslexic students, the majority had difficulties with maths as well as language. The difficulties and the prognoses covered a wide range.

Myth #4: Dyscalculia isn't very common.
One of the reasons people might believe this particular myth is lack of awareness. There is little doubt that people know that maths difficulties are very common. I firmly believe that maths learning difficulties lie on a spectrum and that dyscalculia lies at the extreme end of that spectrum. So, dyscalculia affects around 5% of the population, but the maths learning difficulties affect around 25% of the population. The statistics for 2016 for GCSE maths (a national exam for England and Wales, usually taken at age 16y) is that 39% failed to get a grade that was considered to be a 'pass' grade.

Myth #5: Kids with dyscalculia can't learn maths.
I could parallel that to the myth that dyslexic children can't learn to read. Both myths are very wrong. Pupils with dyscalculia may not be able to learn maths when taught inappropriately, but back to Margaret Rawson's wise words, 'Teach the subject as it is to the child as he is.' In my specialist school, we took on children at 10 and 11 years old who were 3 or 4 years behind in maths and taught them according to their learning profile. The National 'pass' rate in regular schools in those days was just under 50%. We were getting over 75-80%, with most of the rest only one grade away from that 'pass' grade. I could, and indeed have in a recent (May 2017) article, argue that traditional teaching methods for maths discriminate against dyscalculics.

Do you struggle with Maths?

Take our quick Dyscalculia Checklist questionnaire

See the checklist