Understanding Dyscalculia

Morgan Kimball 

Dyscalculia, impacting 1 in 10, is a learning struggle that affects an individual’s ability to do math. Much like dyslexia interrupts the areas of the brain with reading and writing; dyscalculia affects the area of the brain that handles math and number-related skills and understanding. One way to understand the difference between dyslexia and dyscalculia is: to think of dyslexia as a language processing difficulty, and our language is based on the alphabet, but with dyscalculia, the language is based on numbers.

Dyscalculia, however, goes much deeper than mixing up numbers such as 318 and 813 or not understanding what a “quarter to 11” means when referring to time. Dyscalculia involves value and struggling to understand the value of a number. For example, one person could look at a plate with a half dozen cookies and immediately note there are 6 cookies on the plate. An individual with dyscalculia does not automatically know that by looking at the plate. They need to count each individual cookie. Additionally, they don’t automatically understand what the terms ‘half’ and ‘dozen’ are. This needs to be taught, explained, and repeated using manipulatives for the information to become retained and permanently embedded so it can easily be retrieved later. Can a person with dyscalculia learn math? Of course, they can. They will learn the information, they just need to learn the information in a different way, using creative real-life examples and applications, to have a better understanding which gives them a reason to retain it.

Signs of Dyscalculia: 


  • Difficulty associating a number with a group of items (ex., Cookies on a plate) 
  • Difficulty remembering numbers (911, phone #) 

Grade School: 

  • Doesn’t want to play games involving math (Uno, War, etc.)
  • Difficulty learning math facts (multiplication tables) 
  • Doesn’t line up math columns correctly 
  • Difficulty reading and writing numbers 
  • Difficulty learning math language 

Middle School: 

  • Avoids lessons or “tunes out” with numbers, charts, graphs 
  • Difficulty with time – might be late to class 
  • Difficulty making comparisons – more, less, greater, fewer
  • Difficulty memorizing a sequence of numbers or steps 

High School: 

  • Struggles with establishing costs 
  • Struggles with mental math
  • Trouble sticking with a schedule – school, work, extracurriculars
  • Difficulty anticipating speed and distance

Typical symptoms include:

  • Difficulty counting backwards
  • Slow to perform calculations
  • A poor sense of numbers, value & estimation
  • Difficulty understanding place value
  • Addition is often the default operation
  • High levels of mathematics anxiety