You are currently viewing Recognising and Understanding Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that hinders a child’s ability to comprehend number-based information and math. It’s helpful to recognise and intervene where necessary. 

An education expert reveals that encountering challenges with mathematics throughout their educational journeys is not uncommon for South African school students. Dyscalculia, a lesser-known learning disorder, affects many students. It hinders their ability to grasp mathematical concepts and perform mathematical calculations. Often misunderstood or misdiagnosed as mere ‘math anxiety’ or laziness, dyscalculia impairs a person’s numerical and arithmetic skills, making it challenging to understand numbers, quantities, and mathematical operations.

By raising awareness about dyscalculia, we can ensure that affected students receive effective assistance. It’s crucial to provide them with the necessary support and resources, enabling them to access the help they need.

What is it?

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects an individual’s ability to understand and manipulate numbers and mathematical concepts – similar to how dyslexia impacts reading. In South Africa, there is little awareness of dyscalculia as a condition and, consequently, a lack of diagnostic and remedial resources.

Dr Lindiwe Mokotjo, Deputy Dean: Academic Development Support at IIE Rosebank College, points out that learners frequently encounter challenges with mathematics because of preconceived notions formed from their interactions with the subject. This occurs throughout their educational journey, starting from a young age.

“These negative perceptions often inform their overall attitude towards mathematics, thereby creating a barrier to effective learning. I’ve observed a direct correlation between students’ failure rates and the existence of an information gap, which hinders their understanding of mathematical concepts taught in the classroom. These, as well as other factors, could induce mathematics anxiety and developmental dyscalculia,” she notes.

What’s that word? Find out about dysnomia here.

The value of research and action

Dr Mokotjo says ongoing research delves deeper into dyscalculia globally and, to a limited extent, in South Africa. It’s postulated that dyscalculia could be as prevalent as dyslexia (estimated at between 5% and 10% of the population) and that its impact is equally critical. Furthermore, there is a persistent global concern – particularly in South Africa – regarding students’ subpar mathematics performance generally.

“There are several undeniable benefits to understanding numbers – benefits many take for granted. However, individuals with dyscalculia are excluded from such basic advantages. Consequently, it can be argued that dyscalculia extracts a financial cost from government and society, in addition to the personal cost for individuals,” she says.

Recent research from the UK reveals that individuals with poor numeracy skills experience several detrimental effects. The study estimated that the economic impact of low numeracy skills in the UK amounted to over £48 billion. It raises the question regarding the corresponding impact in South Africa, which is arguably likely to come at an even higher cost.

The big question is: How can children living with dyscalculia be helped?

An option for support is to seek the assistance of a learning specialist or educational psychologist. These professionals can assess the presence and extent of the child’s dyscalculia and recommend appropriate accommodations and interventions. Some universities and schools may also have learning support centres that assist students.

“Also, there are various technological tools that can assist individuals with dyscalculia,” says Dr Mokotjo. “For example, there’re math apps and software programmes that can visually represent mathematical concepts and tools to read math problems aloud to the user. There’re also assistive technologies such as calculators, abacuses and active learning strategies as a teaching mechanism. These can assist with basic math understanding and calculations.”

Dr Mokotjo notes it’s important to understand that while dyscalculia can pose challenges, it does not define a child’s abilities or limit their potential. “With the right support and accommodations, children with dyscalculia can succeed academically and daily. It’s important that individuals with dyscalculia understand the condition and are able to advocate for themselves and seek the support they need to thrive.”

Thus far, the exact prevalence of dyscalculia in South Africa has not been determined. Studies on learning difficulties have focused mainly on dyslexia, with comparatively little research on dyscalculia. “It’s therefore essential that more research is undertaken to better understand the prevalence of dyscalculia in South Africa. And to develop effective strategies for identifying and supporting individuals with this condition.”