Record numbers of U.S. students severely struggle with math, but only a fraction of them receive screening and support targeting potential math disabilities.
While math teachers in a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey this spring estimated that 40 percent of their students perform below grade level in math, only 15 percent of teachers said their students have been screened for dyscalculia, a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math.
That’s why some researchers and educators are working to leverage what we know about the connections between dyscalculia and the much better-known dyslexia to identify new avenues to improve math learning for struggling students.
“We need to realize that children who have math difficulties will often also have difficulties in other domains,” said Daniel Ansari, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University in Ontario, where he heads the Numerical Cognition Laboratory. “There’s lots of good reasons to think that that is probably more the norm, and that very specific profiles of children who will only struggle with math and nothing else, they’re more the exception.”
Dyscalculia, a severe, persistent learning disability in mathematics, affects about 5 percent to 8 percent of school-age children nationwide. That’s roughly the same as those affected by dyslexia. Children with dyscalculia may have difficulties in a wide array of areas, including understanding the meaning of numerical symbols, such as number words and digits, and spatial processing, such as mentally rotating an object to match an example shape.
Dyscalculia and dyslexia often share underlying problems with attention, visual and working memory, and studies estimate a third to 75 percent of students with dyscalculia also have dyslexia, dysgraphia, or attention deficits.
While there are some potential genetic risk factors for dyscalculia, just as for dyslexia, strong classroom instruction and home support are the most important factors in mitigating both disabilities.
At first glance, reading and math disabilities may seem to have little overlap. “In reading, the skills do build upon each other more naturally than in math,” said Margaret Howells, a math teacher at the independent Wheeling Country Day School in West Virginia who specializes in helping students with dyscalculia. “In math you’ve got so many different types of things like telling time and fractions and multiplication, where you have so many different processes that you have to master.”
Yet there may be more overlap than first appears. Vanderbilt University research professor Lynn Fuchs and her colleagues are tracking indicators and interventions for math disabilities in early grades. They find that children’s phonemic awareness and ability to verbally count Arabic numerals in kindergarten are strong predictors of their risks of both dyslexia and dyscalculia.
Interestingly, Fuchs said, the inability to count out loud predicts young children’s risk of math disability regardless of how well they understand the concept of ordinality, or putting numbers into a sequence. Just as songs and rhymes are often used to teach the alphabet and early-phonics rules, experts say verbal counting songs (such as skip-counting songs) should be standard in early grades.
And Sarah Powell, an associate professor in special education at the University of Texas at Austin, found math interventions intended to improve calculations were more effective when they also focused on language comprehension, attention, and working memory.
“We want to move children to retrieval, to the extent possible, but we’re not just trying to get them to memorize math facts—that’s not a good intervention. In a good intervention, we’re dealing with number sense, number knowledge, broadly defined number lines, counting strategies, decomposition [breaking a whole number into smaller numbers], all of it,” Fuchs said.
There are six basic approaches that the Institute of Education Sciences has found have significant evidence of effectiveness in helping students struggling with math.
- Provide systematic instruction to develop math understanding. This includes reviewing and integrating prior concepts and sequencing instruction to build concept understanding gradually.
- Teach clear and precise mathematical language. For example, rather than using the terms “carrying” or “borrowing” in addition and subtraction, use the term “regrouping” to underscore that the operation involves changes to place value.
- Use well-curated concrete and semi-concrete representations of math concepts. Generally, concrete tools like manipulatives should give way to simpler representations like line drawings and finally to abstract representations like numerical equations.
- Use the number line to demonstrate math concepts and procedures. For example, number lines can be used to demonstrate comparing magnitude and operations for both whole numbers and fractions, measuring time or temperature, or graphing coordinates and data.
- Give explicit instruction on word problems focused on deepening students’ understanding and ability to apply math ideas. This includes teaching students how to identify and develop strategies to solve different types of problems, such as change or ratio word problems.
- Include regular, timed activities to build math fluency. Students may be motivated by beating their own time on successive timed math exercises. Timed activities can be used for more than just basic math facts like multiplication tables, including common tasks needed for complex problems, such as equivalents for fractions.
Source: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education
“By trying to capitalize on what we know about shared forms of cognitive processing for dyslexia and dyscalculia, we can improve outcomes in an efficient way,” Fuchs said, “which is important … because in schools, when you have difficulty across reading and math and really require intervention in both areas, you’re a lot more likely to get reading intervention than math intervention. Reading will take priority almost everywhere.”
Leveraging dyslexia supports for math
Howells came to her own approach to teaching students with dyscalculia through a reading intervention. A decade ago, Wheeling Country Day School developed a multisensory center to support students with dyslexia using a common intervention called the Orton-Gillingham approach, which uses visual, auditory, and tactile activities to help students better organize and process language.
Howells, a math teacher, had been using the approach for a few years when she began to adapt the model to help her students with similar behavior and attention problems in math.
One of the first dyscalculic students Howells worked with, “struggled greatly in subtraction with regrouping; we used blocks and blocks and blocks for a long time to help him understand that, but since he was in fourth grade, we were also working on understanding fractions … so we were kind of hitting it at both ends,” she said. “A structured literacy lesson does a lot of natural interweaving of previous activities or previous concepts that you’ve worked on, and it brings them back around in a patterned way so that students get that exposure and more practice.”
Now, the school is piloting a dyscalculia-adapted version of the dyslexia intervention, both through in-person sessions with students with math disabilities in Martinsburg, West Va., and in online sessions with students in Pittsburgh, Pa. and Waterville, Ohio.
Students may start a session with counting chants—by twos and tens, forward and backward, for example—before practicing mental math problems and pattern recognition or using manipulatives like base-10 blocks or a Dutch rekenrek, which is similar to an abacus.
“We used to think that maybe children with developmental dyscalculia were just born with a deficit in their ability to process quantity. I think that hypothesis has been quite resoundingly rejected at this point,” Ansari said. “I think [that’s] a very positive message, because we can also now assume that a lot of developmental dyscalculia has to do with how children are taught math and how they are given opportunities to learn about numerical symbols very early on.”
Teachers need greater guidance
Integrating interventions for dyscalculia and dyslexia may also help ease in teachers who have not had as much experience delivering math interventions.
In the EdWeek Research Center survey, nearly 75 percent of teachers said they had received little to no preservice or in-service training on how to support students with math-related disabilities, and 40 percent said they have no math coach or interventionist at their school.
K-8 math coaches Elly Blanco-Rowe and Jen Gleason of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit professional-development organization in New York City, said most of the math teachers they work with had not previously been trained to provide systemic, evidence-based interventions for struggling math students.
“For example, there’s a strategy called the five practices, which is a more inquiry-oriented approach,” Gleason said. “It emphasizes the discourse that is really important for students to learn from each other: to be able to justify their solutions, compare solutions, agree and disagree. … It is an important way to build conceptual understanding in the mathematics classroom that looks very different [from traditional teacher preparation].”
The dire headlines about students’ math performance in recent years may have a silver lining, as millions of dollars in federal and foundation money have been dedicated to developing more math interventions and professional development for teachers. Powell, for example, is training math educators to provide more explicit approaches to word problems to students with dyscalculia as well as English learners.
Nurturing parent advocacy in dyscalculia
There’s still a long way to go before math learning disabilities get the same attention as those in literacy, experts caution.
“I think the problem with dyscalculia is that it is still very much something that people don’t talk as much about. With dyslexia, it’s not just the research that’s further along; it’s also the advocacy for struggling readers. There’s not the same sort of advocacy for struggling math learners,” Western University’s Ansari said.
For example, while nearly all states have laws defining dyslexia, fewer, such as New York, Texas, and West Virginia, explicitly mention dyscalculia.
Laura Overdeck’s Be Part of the Equation initiative, launched earlier this school year, hearkens back to an old-school anti-drug campaign to impress on parents the need to educate themselves about math disability issues and “talk to their kids about math.”
The program provides math conversation starters and homework help sheets for parents. Overdeck, the founder of the nonprofit Bedtime Math, recommends schools educate parents about dyscalculia and encourage families to develop habits around math puzzles and games—in the same way schools often do with family read-a-thons.
“If we’re going to catch up on our math gap in this country, we can’t dump it all on teachers; we need more adults on deck, and the parent is the person closest to that child,” said Overdeck. “But parents are not confident with math. They’re nervous about their 3rd grader’s homework. We need to at least have parents able to do elementary math alongside their kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2023 edition of Education Week as Dyscalculia and Dyslexia: Reading Disabilities Offer Insights for Math Support