Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dyscalculia Research

There was a report a couple of weeks ago (the NCETM report links other reports) that research shows that dyscalculia may be more common in schoolchildren than dyslexia. This is quite a revolutionary idea. If it is true, and people take up on it, we can expect big changes in the way that maths is taught.

First however some background. The research was carried out on 1500 primary schoolchildren in Cuba and shows that between 3 and 6 percent screened positive, as opposed to "the 2.5 to 4.3 percent who have dyslexia." I think these are dyslexia in the UK figures. The research used a screener devised by Brian Butterworth - more information about him here, and details of his published screener here. Brian Butterworth is evidently one of our leading experts on the subject, and the screener is meticulous in its definition of dyscalculia and in its efforts to exclude other causes for maths deficit. The screener is only normed up to the age of 14 and it is only a screener and exhorts its users to look at other causes before making a diagnosis.

The reports of the research do raise a lot of questions. Why Cuba? Were the schoolchildren also screened for dyslexia? (If not, the comparison with dyslexia is far from convincing.) Did the researchers look for other contributing causes? Was the screener similar to the published one?

I've always thought of dyscalculia as a comparatively rare condition, relating to difficulty with conceptualising numerical information. I've met a few, but only a few, people like that in my years of teaching. What I don't think it is includes:
  • disliking maths
  • not understanding maths after bad teaching
  • dyslexia - a lot of dyslexics have difficulty with maths
  • memory difficulties - cannot hold how to do things
You'd want to filter these things out, especially the dyslexia. Someone who cannot learn tables, or gets confused between multiplication and division, or tries to take the top number from the bottom one in a written sum, or confuses median and mean, and so on, most likely does not have dyscalculia.

Of course if the research proves to be true I may need to change my opinion. But I may find that all that has happened is that the definition of dyscalculia has changed.