A problem that doesn't add up

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh on how ICT can help spot children with dyslexia and dyscalculia

You have a child who can't "get" maths. She still can't tell the time, loses herself when she's counting and struggles with simple addition.

What's the problem? One possibility is that she's dyscalculic. It's important to find out if this is the case: if she does suffer from dyscalculia the likely effect of increased intervention will be to make her feel more stupid and anxious - a sad irony, because she may be highly intelligent.

Crucial to the understanding of learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia is their identification as specific and separate from the "normal" spread of abilities across a class of children. "The issue," says Professor Brian Butterworth of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology at University College London, "is how can you distinguish the people who have dyscalculia from those who are bad at maths for all sorts of other reasons."

Emphasising that dyscalculia isn't just being poor at maths, Professor Butterworth says: "There's no point in trying to teach these kids the way you teach the rest of the class. We've done research with groups of nine-year-olds who are dyscalculic and for them life is a daily humiliation. In the maths lesson they don't understand what's going on.

They're stigmatised by the other kids, and their parents and teachers often think they're stupid - and they think they're stupid themselves."

How do teachers make the identification? There are tests for dyslexia and dyscalculia, of course, but they are usually administered by educational psychologists.

But computers are now providing a way around these limitations, giving the teacher a manageable classroom tool for identifying dyslexia and dyscalculia. Using a computer, says Chris Singleton of Hull University, is "not only labour-saving for the teacher, but it makes timings more exact".

Importantly, discovering the problem does not cure it. Teachers may still want to refer the child for specialist help, or decide to look again at their teaching. The software is another tool for the teacher, giving information that can be used in their own work and be passed on to the specialists who support them.

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