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Innovative practice - A numbers game

Using specially created, interactive computer games to help children with dyscalculia

Using specially created, interactive computer games to help children with dyscalculia

The background

Numbers are far harder for children with dyscalculia to grasp than other learners. The relative size of different figures is less obvious to them, and they can be left counting on their fingers long past the age their classmates have stopped.

Although dyscalculia can affect up to 7 per cent of children, they often receive little specialist support from their teachers.

One school which has bucked that trend is St Richard's with St Andrew's Church of England Primary in Richmond. In 2006 its special educational needs co-ordinator, Angela King, asked her former colleague Trish Babtie if she would work part-time as a SEN teacher at the school.

Ms Babtie had a special interest in dyscalculia, as she also worked for a few days a week with Emerson House, a specialist centre in London for children with dyscalculia and dyslexia set up in 1991 by Jane Emerson and the late Dorian Yeo. They had developed successful ways of working with dyscalculic children, built on research done by Professor Brian Butterworth of University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Ms Babtie says the research showed that children needed to become comfortable with concrete, physical examples of numbers, such as counters and rods, before moving on to pictorial representations and abstract figures. But sometimes their teachers moved to the abstract too quickly. "So they don't develop a stable sense of numbers," she says. "I've met adults with dyscalculia who, when you mention 'maths', start to physically shake."

Her book with Jane Emerson, The Dyscalculia Assessment (Continuum), won best special education resource at last year's BESA Education Resource Awards.

The project

Because of Ms Babtie's work, St Richard's was chosen to help pilot a project where simple, interactive computer games were used to teach basic maths skills.

The Digital Interventions for Dyscalculia and Low Numeracy project was developed by the Institute for Education's London Knowledge Lab.

As part of the research for the scheme, the lab's Professor Diana Laurillard began visiting St Richard's in 2008 and sat in on sessions with dyscalculic pupils. The games, which were then tested at the school, were designed to help children get a firmer grip on numbers. One involves pupils putting together colourful bars that add up to 10, while another helps children adjust the time on a clock-face.

The games are visually simple, to avoid the distractions that can clutter educational programmes and to give pupils more support than just telling them their answer is right or wrong.

Tips from the scheme

Schools can try the games for themselves at

Ms Babtie recommends avoiding other games if they look too visually complicated as they can be distracting.

She also recommends giving pupils plenty of time, as it can take many hours for some concepts to sink in.

Evidence that it works?

A study Professor Butterworth, Professor Laurillard and Sashank Varma published recently in the journal Science ("Dyscalculia: from brain to education", vol 332) described the approach as "promising". It noted that, in a study of two of the games with six and seven-year-olds, "after 10 to 15 minutes of play per school day for three weeks, there was a significant improvement in the tasks practised in both games - namely number comparison". It found that such software also allowed learners to do more practice than they could working only with a teacher.


Approach: Using special games to help pupils with dyscalculia

Started: 2008

Leaders: Diana Laurillard at the London Knowledge Lab and Trish Babtie at St Richard's Primary

The school

Name: St Richard's with St Andrew's Church of England Primary

Location: Richmond, Surrey

Intake: 137 pupils aged three to 11. More likely than average to have special educational needs and be eligible for free school meals

Ofsted overall rating: Good.

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