Dyscalculia – what society and teachers need to know

Dyscalculia is a term that educators use for various conditions which cause people difficulties with learning maths. I recently attended a great CPD session on it by the University of Chester and thought it would be useful for other teachers out there too.

Mathematics Skills

Society sees the importance of maths, however, many people have difficulties with it.

A 2011 Department for Business Innovation and Skills survey found that 49% of the adult population in the UK had the numeracy skills of an 11-year old or below.

More recently, in 2014, research on behalf of National Numeracy highlighted that:

  • Poor adult numeracy costs the UK economy £20 billion a year.
  • 36% of adults feel that poor maths skills have held them back.
  • 31% of adults want to improve their maths skills.

What both of these surveys show is the scale of the problem in the UK. Many people struggle with maths not only in school but continue to do so through their adult working lives.

If we can start to tackle the problems at a young age, we can hopefully reduce the number of adults who struggle.

Why do some people struggle with maths?

There are many reasons why people may struggle with maths:

  • Poor working memory
  • Maths anxiety
  • Dyscalculia
  • Society is proud of being “bad at maths”
  • Other learning difficulties which impact on maths learning
  • Poor teaching at different stages

In this blog, I will focus mainly on dyscalculia as it is something that can be poorly understood by teachers and society.

What is dyscalculia?

Now we know why it is important to diagnose it, let’s look at exactly what it is.

Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties in mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age. level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities.

Agreed by SASC & BDA Working Groups on Dyscalculia, 2019

It is best if we consider maths difficulties as a spectrum.

Double headed arrow to show spectrum of difficulties. Left arrow points to text saying other maths learning difficulties. Right arrow points to text saying dyscalculia

Dyscalculia falls at one end of the spectrum and will be distinguishable from other maths issues due to its severity. It may include problems with number sense, ordering, symbolic and non-symbolic comparison and subitising.

It can occur on its own, but it can also occur with other learning difficulties such as mathematics anxiety and medical conditions.

What is ‘number sense’?

Number sense means understanding numbers and being able to use them in a flexible way. It involves being able to think of strategies to solve simple equations by understanding what the numbers represent.

For example, if we ask a student “What is 18 x 5?” Are they able to use strategies like do 18 x 10 and then half the answer?

What is subitising?

Subitising is being able to look at a small group of objects and judge how many there are without having to stop and count each object.

Text says How many do you see. Picture of 3 flowers.

We are all born with a number module. Babies can make judgements and tell the difference between groups of objects before they are able to count them. Most people have a number module of about five, meaning we can judge groups of five objects.

Once we get groups above five, most people have to perform a quick calculation in their head to work out how many there are. People with dyscalculia may struggle do this and may have to count out each object.

Text says how many do you see? 7 flowers visible.

What is non-symbolic magnitude?

Non-symbolic magnitude is being able to look at two groups of objects and judge which group has more.

Two green boxes. Left box has 3 dots. Right box has 8 dots.
Which box has the most spots?

Someone with dyscalculia may not be able to tell that the right box has more spots than the left box.

What is symbolic magnitude?

Symbolic magnitude is the same as the idea of non-symbolic magnitude but instead uses the number symbols.

Two boxes. Left box has the number 4, the right box has the number 7
Which has the greater value?

Some people with dyscalculia may struggle to know which symbol represents the larger value and they may struggle even more if the symbols are different sized fonts.

Dyscalculia Statistics

There are different estimates as to how common dyscalculia is.

These range in studies from 1.3% to 10.3% with the average estimate around 5-6% of the population.

There does not seem to be a gender difference with both boys and girls affected equally and it does often appear alongside other specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Causes of Dyscalculia

There appears to be evidence that there is a genetic influence in dyscalculia. However, studies into causes are about 30 years behind those for dyslexia and there is still lots of debate!

Typical Presentations of Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia needs specialist diagnosis by someone who is trained to do so. However, there are some signs that a person may possibly have dyscalculia, it is possible in people that:

  • Have difficulties with estimating quantities or numbers of objects
  • Have difficulties with one to one correspondence
  • Rely on counting with fingers
  • Rely on counting in ones
  • Find orders of magnitude difficult
  • Have difficulties spotting patterns and sequencing
  • Have difficulties recalling basic arithmetic facts from memory
  • Rely on inefficient calculation strategies
  • Have difficulties estimating calculations or knowing if an answer is sensible
  • Have difficulties with place value
  • Confuse left and right
  • Find telling the time difficult

Supporting People with Dyscalculua

All the evidence shown that carefully planned interventions can be successful. The key here is the planning, they need to be designed around the individual.

Effective interventions need to be planned to target the specific areas of weakness instead of just general interventions and this is where working with a personal tutor can really help someone as they have the chance to really focus on individual strengths and weaknesses.

If you’d like to speak to one of our tutors about specialised sessions and how we can help you can do so here:


Strategies need to be carefully designed and individualised. It is often effective to use a multisensory approach that gives leaners different ways to understand the same concept.

It is always important to focus on what the learner can do and build on this in small steps.

The cone of learning

Triangle with text
After 2 weeks we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we say and 90% of what we say and do
Important in dyscalculia

Multisensory Approach

As the cone of learning shows, the more senses we use in learning, the more effective the learning can be.

One way of using a multisensory approach in maths is to use manipulatives as students can feel them, create with them and explore different ways of what numbers represent.

Wooden blocks, coins, counters and beads to use with people with dyscalculia
Using manipulatives

Maths Anxiety

Maths anxiety and maths difficulties are often related. Anxiety about the subject makes learning more difficult as it affects working memory, slows down numerical skills processing and confidence.

Strategies to develop resilience in people with dyscalculia

To overcome anxiety and build confidence it is important to:

  • Give learners time to think
  • Allow learners to discover the connections for themselves
  • Encourage learners to explain their reasoning
  • Encourage learners to reflect on their learning
  • Explore misconceptions
  • Provide opportunities for overlearning

Useful Resources




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