teaching strategies for dyscalculia
This section contains answers to questions frequently asked by teachers. Teachers are also encouraged to read the Dyscalculia section (which contains general information about dyscalculia), as well as the Resources section.
What should I look out for in the classroom?
It is common for specific learning disabilities to be overlooked. Teachers and parents often mistakenly assume that because the child isn't succeeding they just aren't very bright. This is made more likely by the fact that learning disabilities commonly co-occur. Research suggests that 50% of children with dyscalculia will also have dyslexia, and 20% ADHD (attentional deficit and hyperactivity disorder).
In addition learning disabilities can cause children to become frustrated and develop behavioural problems, which then become the focus of any intervention, leaving the underlying cause unaddressed.
If in doubt, refer a child for assessment. A trained specialist will run tests for IQ, maths, reading and attention, and will be able to figure out if the problem is a general or specific one. Even if the problem is a general one, the child is just as entitled to extra help!
- Seems to have little "number sense"
- Trouble with counting, memorising arithmetical facts, following procedures, or executing strategies - inaccurate, slow or both.
- Exhibits dislike of or anxiety towards maths, and/or avoidance behaviours
I have two children with dyscalculia in my class, how can I keep them in mind?
Dyscalculic children are very aware of being worse at maths than their peers. Maths class soon becomes very discouraging to them as they experience constant failure and are left behind. They often develop anxiety and avoidance behaviours.
Teachers can help make the maths lesson as positive as possible by:
- Giving children own set of work to complete, which is at their level.
- Allowing extra time - even with problems they can do, dyscalculic children are much slower.
- Using written rather than verbal instructions and questions. Dyscalculic children are already spending a lot of mental energy trying to understand the maths, the last thing they need is to have to memorise the instructions at the same time.
What kind of extra help does a child with dyscalculia need?
A child with dyscalculia will not just catch up on their own, and needs extra help with mathematics from someone as early as possible. Ideally this is best done by a specialist, either a special education teacher or other qualified therapist.
However, because of the lack of resources to help learning disabled children, many teachers may find themselves trying to give some remediation. Below are a few tips, also see the Resources section.
There are many different approaches to remediation, and it is hard to choose between them. Often the best approach for a child will be a mixture of techniques. It is a good idea is to identify the areas where the child has difficulty, and choose an intervention targeted at these areas. It is important to realise that difficulties might be very low level.
Having at least one teacher guidebook is highly recommended. There is an excellent book by Brian Butterworth and Dorian Yeo, "Dyscalculia Guidance", which is based on a combination the latest research and years of experience in special education, and which contains detailed suggestions as well as practical worksheets. Another good book for teachers is "Dyscalculia: Action Plans for Successful Learning in Mathematics" by Glynis Hannell. Both of these are fairly inexpensive and can be ordered on Amazon UK.
In the US there are a lot of books on teaching maths to learning disabled children. These books tend not to be targeted to dyscalculia but rather any type of learning disability, so tend to offer more general advice. One classic is "Teaching Mathematics to Students With Learning Disabilities" by Nancy S. Bley & Carol Thornton. See the Resources section for more materials.
Some general pointers include:
- Focus on understanding (especially of quantity)
- Use concrete materials to help link mathematical symbols to quantity
- Start at a level which the child is comfortable at, so that they experience some success, and slowly move to more difficult areas
- Provide a lot of practice for new skills/concepts
- Reduce the need for memorisation, especially initially
- Ask a lot of questions to get the child engaged and thinking about their own thinking
- Make learning as active and fun as possible - a positive experience
One thing to be avoided is spending too much time on drilling of arithmetic facts. Where this is done try to use an entertaining method such as computer or card games. While facts are important for maths, drilling alone will not help with the rest of the difficulties and can be a very frustrating experience for dyscalculic children. It is important to prioritise; in this day and age calculators can make up for memorisation. There are many people who do not have arithmetic facts well memorised, but are still perfectly good at maths. (To give a personal example, the author of this site is still very slow at her times tables, but in high school was still a gifted mathematics student!)