Calculated affront

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Dyslexia is well researched, but people are reluctant to acknowledge dyscalculia, says Steve Chinn

Dyscalculia has crept into the special needs vocabulary without, as yet, any of the controversy that surrounds dyslexia. Maybe this is because in the UK and many other countries, it is socially acceptable to be hopeless at maths.

In comparison to dyslexia, dyscalculia is under-researched, but we do know that a significant percentage of people struggle with maths. At adult level this could be as high, or even higher, than 30 per cent. What we do not know, because there isn't enough research, is how many people are dyscalculic. The few papers on the incidence of dyscalculia suggest that the prevalence is about 6 per cent.

Of course, the percentage of people that "have" something will depend on the definition of that something. The DfES booklet The National Numeracy Strategy: Guidance to support pupils with dyslexia and dyscalculia (2001) defines dyscalculia as "a condition that affects the ability to acquire mathematical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they may do so mechanically and without confidence."

Some of the thinking about dyscalculia has been sidetracked by its occurrence alongside other learning difficulties, particularly dyslexia.

What matters to teachers and learning support assistants is the impact of our current state of knowledge on teaching. In my experience, based on 24 years' teaching in specialist schools, it is likely that most dyslexic learners will have some difficulty with maths even though the most recent definitions of dyslexia focus solely on language difficulties. We do not know what percentage of dyscalculic learners will have difficulty with language.

Any educational philosophy that defines "returning to traditional methods"

as a focus on rote learning mathematical facts and procedures is condemning a significant percentage of learners to failure, partly because not everyone has the necessary mathematical memory for this task (we don't know why, only that it is so) and partly because it introduces the idea of failure over which the learner has no control. When we do not succeed, one of the best strategies for preserving self-esteem is to avoid further failure. No wonder attitudes to learning maths, this highly judgmental subject, is such an issue with pupils.

It is clear from the recent increase in books on teaching dyscalculic pupils that there is no specific teaching style or programme for dyscalculia. They offer little that differs from what has already been written for the difficulties dyslexic learners have with maths and, thank goodness, nothing that is not good teaching practice for any learner.

I do, however, have reservations about books or interventions that take only a precision teaching approach or are over-prescriptive. Learners are not that simple. The problem with precision teaching, where every procedure is presented in many small, sequential steps, is that it is slow and the learner can become frustrated. It also omits the overviews and reviews that are crucial to understanding and retaining information. An over-prescriptive approach fails to take account of individual difficulties and the many other factors that influence learning.

As time and research move on, we will realise that the huge variation in learners and the teaching they experience will result in more than one route to becoming dyscalculic. For example, there will be the pupil who gets acceptable marks in maths exams based solely on the ability to memorise enough facts and procedures to score at a pass level, especially in the UK culture of low percentage pass rates. Although this pupil will carry with them a good grade in GCSE maths, they will be unlikely to retain any maths in the long term. Or there will be the pupil who just can't retrieve from memory the facts and procedures he needs to achieve success.

If this pupil has no alternative approach to compensate for his deficits he will fail.

Then there will be the impulsive and intuitive child who refuses to write any of his method and who may compound the situation by making a minor error, thus producing an incorrect answer. Even if this type of learner records a correct answer, our culture requires documentation and he may still fail the examination, despite achieving many correct answers.

Individual profiles are determined by the interaction of intellectual and attitudinal factors. Poor memory for mathematical facts and procedures; poor generalisation; pattern-forming skills; slow processing (another demand from our maths culture is to work quickly); lack of sophistication in the use of symbolic representations, for example (2x - 7)2; poor understanding of numbers and the four operations and how they inter-relate, will all contribute to the potential to fail. What complicates this profile is the attitude of the learner, which exacerbates the problem, especially if the teaching is inappropriate.

We need to look at the demands our curriculum makes and the way it is structured and taught if we are to reduce the impact of all mathematics learning difficulties, but especially those of the dyscalculic learner. Not every learner can follow the prescribed curriculum path or master all the basic facts. We should introduce strategies that address the problems and teach the underlying links, patterns and concepts of mathematics. We should look at how maths is structured by extrapolating from both ends of development, the beginning early number facts and the procedures of algebra, and build in the consistency and constant reviews that insecure learners so desperately need.

Steven Chinn recently retired as principal of Mark College, Highbridge, Somerset and is author of The Trouble with Maths (Routledge Falmer Pounds 24.99), winner of the 2004 Nasen and TES Books for Teaching and Learning Award Email:

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