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.


Andrea McCulloch said...

Hi Chris

I'm a L4 literacy specialist who also teaches dyslexic learners - and numeracy. I'm interested in your assertation that dyscalculia does not include those who have "mathsmemory" difficulties, and that true dyscalculia is a rare condition.

For much of my childhood I struggled with exactly those topics you outline -but in my case, I am fairly certain that there is a physical, or more precisely, neurological cause. I have mildish left-side hemiplegia, a condition related to cerebral palsy - effectively, brain injury. The condition is congenital in my case (and in most cases.)

Left side hemiplegia is known to be associated with spatial-perceptual difficulties, my own difficulty being strongest in how parts relate to wholes.

Within the family there are varying strengths of maths ability - my sister struggled with some concepts, whilst my son and father are/were very able mathematicians, so the link with maths difficulties and heredity is less certain in my case.

As a tutor I can certainly state that I have seen many people of above - average intelligence who really struggle with mathematical concepts; until a period of intensive study some years ago, I would have counted myself in that number.

I've referred to myself as being dyscalculic many times - possibly incorrectly, given your assertation. I'm not dyslexic in the conventional sense - I have above-average word skills, I could read at 3, and read adult materials aged 7.

The question is, can all those with problems of "mathsmemory" be shown to have neurological 'differences', as with dyslexia? Or is there another, unrelated reason?

Food for thought, thanks for putting this up.

Chris Jackson said...

Thanks for your comment, Andrea. I think I meant that I believed that dyscalculia was a rare condition, but I might find myself changing that belief. My beliefs about dyslexia have changed over the years. I have assessed people for dyslexia and would not diagnose someone as dyslexic if something else could be thought to have caused the symptoms experienced. So if someone is experiencing difficulty with maths, I'd want to look at all the background and try to think through causes and effects.

HileryJane said...

Hi Chris

I have started my own blog around the theme of literacy and wondered if I could add you to my nascent blogroll.
My address is:
I realise you are probably on holiday - here in Scotland we started this week. Hope to hear from you once you are back.
Best wishes

Chris Jackson said...

Please feel free to put me on the blog roll. It's true, I've been on holiday and then off sick. Chris

memo said...

Interesting article. Did you have a look at the website? Its author Dr. Anna J. Wilson is a postdoctoral researcher whose speciality is dyscalculia and numerical cognition. I believe she works (or has) with Brian Butterworth. Anyway, the dyscalculia symptom list on her website debunks all of those myths or anecdotal symptoms that we often see listed on various Internet sites. It tells what symptoms are established by research and which other symptoms although not yet established by research are likely or not likely to be symptoms of dyscalculia.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris and other readers,

I have been working (or should I say trying to work) with a group of 8th graders all year who have extreme difficulty with math. All but one I think have nonverbal learning disabilities (although NVLD is not formally recognized by our public school system).. None have MR --three are considered to be on the autism continuum and one is labeled SLD. They also all have significant difficulty with reading comprehension. Two can recite rote math facts easily, but all four demonstrate weak number sense and struggle with retaining steps to algorithms, any applied (word) problems beyond one-step problems. But most importantly, I think, they seem unable to recognize quantity -- that is, actually understanding what amount a group of digits represents -e.g. if they are multiplying two two-digit numbers and make a mistake and end up getting a two-digit product they don't recognize automatically that something is off about their answer) The other has a seizure disorder which impairs his working memory, but his reading comprehension is closer to grade level. he has a good innate sense of numbers, so when we are doing something with money (the most motivating and engaging subject for all of them) he often can give reasonable estimates but he struggles with basic facts and often has the most difficulty with algorithms of all of them. All five work very hard. Their difficulties are not due to a lack of motivation.

In truth I have been stymied by how to help them. I have made gains with them in basic computation, money sense, and we have spent a great deal of time on fractions and money - real world applications (discounts, tips)..and I have worked with them on simple real world math problems (again money based) that they will likely encounter when shopping. we do excessive amounts of repetitions. Concepts I've seen most 3rd or 4th graders grasp within a couple of weeks, take months and even after they demonstrate some mastery, as soon as we move on to a slightly different topic, they often lose the previous skill. I try to incorporate manipulatives, visuals, and lots of cognitive strategies, but I don't seem much sticking. None of the SRA curricula I've seen and certainly none of the reg ed curricula seems to address their needs. I did try SRA Connecting Math Concepts but even that went at too quick of a pace and had too great of a variety of strands per chapters (these guys cannot easily switch between say geometry and long division practice in one period. Also, a lot of the SpEd programs out there only emphasize basic calculation. In addition, calculators are not so easy of a solution. Often they will mistype digits/operators or mix up the order of the number sentence, and since they don't quickly pick up on "obvious" errors they tend just to write down whatever shows up on the screen.

This summer I am hoping to find some program that I could use with them. I've heard about Lindamood Bell's program..has anyone tried it? Also, I swear a few weeks ago I saw some info about a computer-based cognitive training program (like those BrainFit/Lumosity Programs) being developed specifialy to target students with severe math disabilities, but I have had no luck finding the source again on the Web. Has anyone heard about such a thing?