When I was in grade school, I had one hard and fast rule: Practice makes perfect. If I wasn’t good at something quite yet, I kept at it. I was an avid reader and writer and approached math with the same tenacity. However, I felt my self-esteem wearing thin with each failed math test. It continued to wear down through grade school and all through my college math classes—until I was finally diagnosed with dyscalculia.
Dyscalculia is a math learning disability. It is recently growing in representation, but because of the variation of causes and forms in which it presents itself, dyscalculia can be swept under the rug as “not trying hard enough.”
From my own experience, that’s the toughest part of having dyscalculia. Math is a difficult subject. It requires memorization, number sense, and the ability to identify symbols and relate them to an idea. Unlike letters, which can be linked to sounds, numbers are linked to a value and values aren’t a concrete concept to me.
In fact, that’s one of the things that students with dyscalculia struggle with: connecting numbers to real-life groups and understanding that dyscalculia relates to anything with the same number.
Another struggle is telling time on analog clocks. Because of the way analog clocks work, with marking minutes in fives as the minute hand glides from one number to the next, it takes me a long while to figure out how many minutes have passed and which hour it is.
Other difficulties include more conceptual situations in math. For example, I know how to do long division—sort of—but I couldn’t tell you why each step takes place.
Understood.org suggests looking out for these signs of dyscalculia in students:
Warning Signs in Preschool or Kindergarten
- Has trouble learning to count, especially when it comes to assigning each object in a group a number
- Has trouble recognizing number symbols, such as making the connection between “7” and the word seven
- Struggles to connect a number to a real-life situation, such as knowing that “3” can apply to any group that has three things in it—3 cookies, 3 cars, 3 kids, etc.
- Has trouble remembering numbers, and skips numbers long after kids the same age can count numbers and remember them in the right order
- Finds it hard to recognize patterns and sort items by size, shape, or color
- Avoids playing popular games such as Candy Land that involve numbers, counting, and other math concepts
Warning Signs in Grade School or Middle School
- Has trouble recognizing numbers and symbols
- Has difficulty learning and recalling basic math facts, such as 2 + 4 = 6
- Struggles to identify +, ‒ and other signs and use them correctly
- May still use fingers to count instead of using more sophisticated strategies
- Has trouble writing numerals clearly or putting them in the correct column
- Has trouble coming up with a plan to solve a math problem
- Struggles to understand words related to math, such as greater than and less than
- Has trouble telling the left hand from the right, and has a poor sense of direction
- Has difficulty remembering phone numbers and game scores
- Avoids playing games like Risk that involve number strategy
- Has trouble telling time
Through my struggles, I’ve found many helpful solutions. Give these a try for students struggling with math:
- Use graph paper: Graph paper helps keep numbers in the correct place value slot, making vertical math a lot easier.
- Spread out: When I had to take math tests, I often asked teachers to allow me to place all of my work on scrap paper because I needed to space my work out to keep my steps in order.
- Use colored paper: Using a colored sheet of paper can provide a visual contrast and help separate numbers in long sequences or multistep equations.
- Practice basic math: Even if the meaning is not grasped, the ability to know basic math as a fact, through rote memorization, is a huge help.
Dyscalculia is not an easy thing to deal with and it affects a person’s whole life. But, knowing the signs and what you can do to help your students be their best is a huge leap toward supporting them in their development into confident and capable adults.
Understood.org has a roundup of all aspects of dyscalculia including what teachers and parents can do to support students with this disability.
Karina Ruiz has four years of experience working with children for non-profit after-school programming for K–12 and four years of nanny work. She is currently a volunteer intern and attends California State University, Monterey Bay.