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Math Learning Disabilities

Many people in this world suffer from math learning disabilities. Math learning disabilities effect over 6% of people in this country, yet many people have never even heard of them. Two disabilities that I am going to be focusing on are dyscalculia and math anxiety. Upon hearing the term dyscalculia, many people think that I have just mispronounced the word dyslexia; dyscalculia is its own disorder specifically related to a disability in math, having nothing to do with reading. Math anxiety is a psychological disorder related to a fear or anxious feeling about math.

It is a true disorder, and not just something a person says when they don’t like math. Today, I am going to go in to much more detail about these disorders and their treatments.


Dyscalculia is defined as” a mathematical learning disability in which a person with normal or above average intelligence has unusual difficulty solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.”(Paquette and Tuttle , 72). Dyscalculia can manifest itself in many ways.

Some people have problems with calculations, others have problems with processing mathematical language, some have visual-spatial problems, some have memory problems that prevent them from remembering basic math facts, and some people have a hard time estimating. Although many people think girls have a harder time with math than boys research has shown that dyscalculia affects both girls and boys in equal amounts. (Paquette and Tuttle, 73).

It is estimated that between 6 and 7 percent of the population has math disabilities. This number however only represents the number of people who are “purely” dyscalculic, meaning they only have math disabilities but have fine performances in other areas of learning.

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It is also known though that 50 to 60 percent of dyslexic people also suffer from dyscalculia. (British Dyslexia Association). Many people’s math disabilities may stem from their problems with language; because they have problems with language it makes it hard for them to process the language in mathematical questions. (British Dyslexia Association).

Symptoms of Dyscalculia

There are many symptoms associated with dyscalculia. Dyscalculia just like any other learning disability manifests itself differently in every person. Not every person will have the same symptoms with the same level of severity. Dyscalculic people may have trouble with basic arithmetic, confusing math signs such as +,- ÷,×, and %. They may rely heavily on their fingers for counting rather than using more efficient mental math techniques. Many people with dyscalculia may have trouble with estimating measurements of objects and distance. They also may have trouble with concepts of time and direction. Another symptom of dyscalculia is the inability to remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulas and sequences. (Unicorn maths)

Dyscalculic people don’t only have problems that are specifically mathematical; they also may have difficulties with everyday life skills that require some basic fundamental understanding of math concepts to complete. Many have trouble with activities that involve sequential processing; this can include anything from dance steps to reading, writing and putting things in order. They may have trouble with checking change and reading an analogue clock. Many of them have difficulties with comprehending financial planning and budgeting. Many have a hard time balancing a checkbook. Understanding the concept of time and judging the passing of time are often difficult for dyscalculic people as well. Telling between left and right can also be difficult.

Another symptom of dyscalculia is having a bad sense of direction. They may also have trouble keeping score in a game. Dr. David Geary, a psychologist and expert on math learning disabilities at the University of Missouri said that you could categorize all these symptoms into three areas of trouble: semantic memory, procedural, and visual- spatial. (Paquette and Tuttle , 23). Having semantic memory problems makes it difficult to remember math facts and often leads to computational errors. When a person has procedural problems they use the wrong procedures to solve math problems. They also have trouble doing the step by step tasks required to solve the problem. People with visual- spatial difficulties may rotate numbers, line up numbers incorrectly in a column, and have trouble with the fine motor skills involved in writing the problem. They may have a particularly difficult time with geometry since geometry is a very visual math.

Causes of Dyscalculia

The causes of dyscalculia vary depending on what type of dyscalculia you have: developmental or acquired. Developmental dyscalculia is one that a person has from birth. Like many learning disabilities developmental dyscalculia can be genetic. There are some known genetic disorders that are linked to dyscalculia such as Turners syndrome, Fragile X syndrome Velocardiofacial syndrome, and Williams syndrome. There is also some research that suggests that there are genes present in the general population that increase the risk of dyscalculia. (About Dyscalculia). Developmental dyscalculia can also be caused by environmental factors such as alcohol consumption during pregnancy and preterm birth. (About Dyscalculia). Both of these can lead to the brain not fully developing which in turn can cause learning disabilities. Acquired dyscalculia on the other hand is dyscalculia that a person gets from a brain injury, usually in adulthood.

In both types of dyscalculia research suggests that both the right and left side of the person’s brain may be affected. Problems with spatial difficulties originate in the right hemisphere of the brain, while problems with arithmetic operation originate in the left hemisphere of the brain. According the R.S. Shalev dyscalculia is most severe when there are problems in the left hemisphere. (Paquette and Tuttle, 76).

Some people may have problems with math that are related to other disabilities. If a person has reading or language problems it might be very difficult for them to do math when there are word problems involved. If a person has handwriting problems that can also make math difficult because they may have trouble physically writing out the equations they need to solve. Teaching Techniques for Children with Dyscalculia

There are many techniques and strategies that teachers can use to help teach students with dyscalculia. Teachers should be very cognizant of the amount of material they ask a dyscalcuic child to memorize. A lot of dyscalculic children have hard times remembering things so just rote memorization and repetition is not going to work for them. Rather, teachers should help kids conceptualize what they are learning so that they can better understand it. When teaching a new concept a teacher should try to stimulate as much of a child’s senses as possible because this helps a child remember whatever is being taught better.

Teachers should use math games and songs to help better engage the students. It is often very helpful for a teacher to use pictures, graphs and charts to help the students visualize the math. For some students with dyscalculia it is helpful if a teacher reads the problems out loud. Teachers should encourage the students to use graph paper to help them keep their numbers lined up. When teaching complex mathematical concepts it is useful to break the problems down into smaller easier to understand parts. It is often helpful if a teacher uses color coding in the class room. For instance, the teacher may always use a blue marker for subtraction and a red marker for addition. The teacher could also use a certain color for the ones place and different color for the tens and hundreds place.(Teaching Expertise) It is also important to make sure that the worksheets a teacher hands out are uncluttered; unnecessary words and pictures can be overwhelming and confusing to a child with dyscalculia.(Teaching Expertise).

Math anxiety

Math anxiety is defined as “an intense emotional feeling of anxiety that people have about their ability to understand and do mathematics. (Texas State University, Counseling Center)People who suffer from math anxiety feel that they are unable to succeed in activities and classes that involve math. Some people get so anxious and nervous about math that they actually have a fear of it; this condition is called math phobia. According to a study done at the University of Granada in Spain, six out of every ten college students suffer from math anxiety. (Science Daily) According to this study there is a big gender gap in regard to math anxiety. Only 42% of men suffered from math anxiety compared to 62% of woman. Many students are so anxious about math that they choose their college majors based on how little math is required for the degree. Math anxiety, unlike dyscalculia, is an emotional rather than intellectual problem. However, math anxiety may interfere with a person’s ability to learn math so much that it may result in an intellectual problem.


There are four symptoms that are most common among people with math anxiety: panic, paranoia, passive behavior and lack of confidence. (Math and Reading Help) When a person panics they become so nervous that they start to feel helpless. It’s as if a wave of terror has washed over their body. Paranoia is when a person believes that they are the only one who is unable to do the math, even when it is a very difficult math such as calculus. Passive behavior is when a person decides to give up. They believe that they will never be able to understand math, so they decide that they will stop trying. Lack of confidence is when a person expects themselves to never know the answer to a math problem. They start second guessing all of their math work and rely on other people to help them with their math work. (Math and Reading Help).

Causes of Math Anxiety

Math anxiety, just as any other condition, does not have a single cause. Many times it is linked to a person’s negative or embarrassing experience with math or math teachers from the past. This could be being punished by a parent or teacher for doing poorly in math, or being embarrassed in front of a group of peers when failing to correctly complete a math problem on the board. Having such an experience can leave a person feeling that he or she is deficient in math, when this in fact in not true. When a person believes they are deficient in math, they then perform badly, which in turn serves as evidence for them that they are in fact deficient in math.

This is known as a self fulfilling prophecy. (Texas State University, Counseling Center)Timed tests can also be a cause of student’s anxiety. Some students are able to complete their entire work fine at home, but then when it comes to taking a test they forget the needed math concepts. They then do poorly on the exam which makes them even more anxious the next time they have a math test.

There are a number of myths about math that contribute to peoples’ anxieties and fears. One myth is that men are better at math than woman. Most research fails to show any difference between men and woman when it comes to math ability. This myth causes girls to believe that they are inherently poor at math, which is simply just not true. Another myth is that there is always only one way to solve a math problem. In reality most math problems can be solved a number of different ways. When a student believes that there is only one way to solve a problem, he or she can become very frustrated or upset if they don’t understand that method.

Another myth is that if a person doesn’t have a “math brain” then they can’t do math. Some people believe that only people with an inborn talent in mathematics are capable of doing it. While it is true that some people are more talented in mathematics than others, it is not true that you need a special genetic makeup in order to succeed in mathematics. Another myth is that to be good at math a person has to be good at calculating. People will often feel ashamed if they still count on their fingers. There is really nothing bad about counting on one’s fingers; it actually shows that a person has an understanding of arithmetic. Math is more about ideas than calculating. Even great mathematicians will make mistakes with their calculations. Being very fast at calculations does not mark a person’s success in math. (Math Academy)

Overcoming Math anxiety

There are many strategies that both teachers and students themselves can use to help them overcome their anxiety towards math. The teacher should really try to emphasize the process and the methods used to solve a problem as opposed to just the answer. If students understand what they are learning then they are less likely to feel anxious towards the subject matter. It is also very important for the teacher to create positive experiences in math class. If students have fun in class and they are given positive reinforcement, then math class will be a positive experience and they will have good feelings about it.

If a person wants to succeed in math class it is also very important that he has a good understanding of basic arithmetic. Math is cumulative, so in order to learn higher levels of math a person must first understand the basics. If a person still does not fully understand fractions or multiplication, then a higher level, course such as calculus, can be very stressful for them. (Texas State University, Counseling Center)It is often useful for a student to use anti anxiety techniques before they go to math class or take a test. Anxiety can interfere with a student’ s concentration, thinking, attention and memory; relaxation techniques can help reduce the physical and emotional characteristics of anxiety that get in the way of the student’s learning. (Texas State University, Counseling Center)

Although there have been many advances in understanding and treating math learning disabilities, there is still a long way to go. In many schools children only receive special education services based on their reading disabilities. Even though dyscalculia is classified as a learning disability, few children get the proper assessment and treatment that they need. (Learning Disabilities Online) Math problems are as pervasive as reading problems yet receive far less attention and concern. Today, mathematical knowledge, reasoning and skill are just as reading ability. It is our job, to make sure that more research is done on the issue, and that everyone receives the proper help that they need. Together, we can create a society in which every person is math literate; a place where it is cool to understand and be good at math.

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Math Learning Disabilities. (2016, Sep 18). Retrieved from

Math Learning Disabilities
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