Dyscalculia involves trouble understanding what numbers mean or how to use numbers to solve math problems. Hallmarks of dyscalculia are weaknesses in subitizing (quickly identify the number of objects present) or in approximate number sense (which plate has more cookies?). It occurs when the brain’s centers for number sense, visual imaging, and language processing do not work properly or do not work together. Dyscalculia often co-occurs with other learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD, further complicating the identification and support of students with dyscalculia. In an episode of The LDA Podcast entitled Dyscalculia: Causes, Consequences, and Creative Solutions, Dr. Anneke Schreuder, the founder of Math and Dyscalculia Services, talked about different ways to test for dyscalculia and the importance of early screening and intervention.
Most states do not have any mandatory Kindergarten or First Grade screening requirements for dyscalculia, and there is still not one widely used screening tool for early elementary students. However, Dr. Schreuder has used behavioral screening with infants as young as six months. Using a simple test, babies are shown a group of 1-3 objects. When objects are added or taken away, babies commonly respond to the change with eye movements and facial expressions. Math screeners are generally not offered in school until a student has fallen well behind their classmates, and Dr. Schreuder argues that because math learning is sequential – new learning builds upon prior learning – this “wait to fail” method makes it even more difficult for students to catch up to their peers. Even students who compensate by memorizing math facts find it hard to keep up by Third Grade when concepts like fractions are introduced. For students in Kindergarten and older, a free online numeracy screener is available from Numeracy Screener. This research-based screener developed by Dr. Daniel Ansari at the University of Western Ontario and takes about 5 minutes to administer. Dr. Schreuder offers a low-cost screener on her website Math and Dyscalculia Services.
The good news is that once dyscalculia is identified, there are research-based interventions that can help to retrain the brain. Practice subitizing is a common math warm-up activity in Kindergarten and early elementary classrooms. With practice, response times and accuracy improve in many students. Multisensory math instruction has also been shown to boost students’ understanding of the concept of number and how to use numbers to solve math problems. Using objects for counting, number lines, and drawn representation of math problems are some examples of multisensory math instruction. The Corwin Mathematics Recovery Book Series provides intensive instructional tools for early mathematics learning. The US Math Recovery Council has as its mission to connect research in mathematics education with practice, and their resources are invaluable to teachers of math in the early to middle grades.
Below are links to additional information and resources which I have found helpful in understanding dyscalculia and in teaching students about early numeracy. Please get in touch if you would like additional support on your child’s math journey.