Dyscalculia and Maths Difficulties

Defining Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a learning difference that can cause difficulties with core mathematics. It affects approximately 6-8% of the population. It occurs on a spectrum with some people mildly affected and others more severely. With the right understanding, accommodations and support, people with dyscalculia can achieve success in education, the workplace and in wider society.
People with dyscalculia lack an intuitive grasp of simple number concepts or ‘number sense’. They have difficulties estimating the magnitude of numbers, exhibit poor understanding of number relationships, and lack fluency with simple numerical operations. Often if the right answer is achieved or the correct procedure followed, it is done so mechanically, with great effort and without confidence.
Dyscalculia is not a general difficulty with learning, it impacts specific skill areas. Dyscalculia is distinct from mathematical difficulties arising from literacy or other learning difficulties, or maths anxiety but can co-occur with these difficulties. The impact of dyscalculia can change according to the environment (i.e. what a dyscalculic person is being asked to do and under what circumstances).

Language, Recognition and Rights

Some people prefer the wording ‘a person with dyscalculia’, while others prefer the term ‘a dyscalculic person’. When working with individuals it is important to use the terminology that the person is most comfortable with. When communicating with a wider audience the terms may be used interchangeably to reflect the variation of preference that exists.

Dyscalculia is a recognised disability under Irish and EU law (such as under equalities, accessibility and disability legislation). However, many dyscalculic people do not consider themselves ‘disabled’ and this view should be respected.

What difficulties might be experienced by a student with Dyscalculia?

  • These students often experience difficulties with basic mathematical or numerical tasks or processes such as adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. Students can also experience difficulty knowing which mathematical process should be employed based on context.
  • Other challenges can include telling the time using an analogue watch or clock, handling money or calculating change.
  • There is a high incidence of co-diagnosis of dyslexia with dyscalculia. This obviously leads to greater challenges for these students.
  • Students with dyscalculia will often experience a lack of confidence or low self-esteem as a result of previous experiences with trying to study maths.

What can you do to support these students?

  • New concepts should be introduced using concrete examples only moving to more abstract concepts after these examples have been thoroughly understood by the student.
  • Multi-sensory teaching can help students who have difficulty with a particular delivery method e.g. visual or aural.
  • Present mathematical processes or procedures in a number of ways – often students will grasp a concept if it is approached in an alternative way.
  • Encourage students to ask questions at all stages if they are having difficulty.
  • Maths teaching should be structured and cumulative and the use of multi-sensory methods employed.
  • Simple examples should be used for new concepts and concepts should always be introduced at the concrete level with materials before going to maths problems in number, symbol and word form.
  • The language used should be transparent and students should be encouraged to put mathematical terms into their own words.
  • Appropriate aids such as number lines, number squares, and calculators should be available, and students should be taught how to use them.
  • Computer programmes can be useful to help consolidate learning.
  • Metacognitive strategies will be particularly useful for problem-solving.
  • The book ‘Teaching Numeracy to Children with Dyslexia’ by Pauline Clayton may be useful for further strategies.
  • Have a plan or strategy, which works in any math word problem situation. When a student is presented with a question that requires mathematical calculation, they may benefit from following the 12 steps provided:
  1. Read the problem carefully looking for clues and important information. Write down the clues, underline, or highlight the clues.
  2. If necessary, rewrite the problem to help find these clues.
  3. Look for clues to determine which math operation is needed to solve the problem, for example, addition, subtraction, etc. Look for keywords like sum, difference, product, perimeter, area, etc. They lead to the operation needed to solve the problem.
  4. Look for what is needed to solve the problem, for example: how many will are left, the total will be, everyone gets red, everyone gets one of each, etc.
  5. Use variable symbols, such as “X” for missing information.
  6. Eliminate all non-essential information by drawing a line through distracting information.
  7. Draw sketches, drawings, and models to see the problem.
  8. Is the word problem similar to previous work, if so how was it solved?
  9. Develop a plan based on the information determined to be important for solving the problem.
  10. Carry out the plan using the math operations which were determined would find the answer.
  11. Does the answer seem reasonable, if it does then it is probably ok – if not then check the work.
  12. Work the problem in reverse or backwards, starting with the answer to see if you wind up with your original problem.

Useful Websites

  • https://ie.ixl.com/math/  provides Irish curriculum-based support from Junior Infants up to 6th year for Maths and English subjects.
  • Further information and videos which may be helpful can be accessed at http://www.stevechinn.co.uk/
  • Free multisensory maths tutorials can be accessed at www.alison.com.
  • www.helpmykidlearn.ie – provides ideas for parents of children aged 0 – 12 to learn on a number of topics, from numeracy, literacy, and communication skills.
  • http://www.primarygames.com/math.php and http://www.mathplayground.com/ – maths games for children.
  • Equatio works on Windows, Mac and Chromebook. It lets the user type, handwrite or dictate equations, formulas and more directly to the computer of Chromebook to create mathematical expressions digitally. With intuitive prediction, it can speed up the accuracy of simple and more complex maths expressions.


  • “What to do when you can’t…” series by Steve Chinn.
  • “Power of 2” series by David J. Sharp (2001).
  • “The Trouble with Maths: A Practical Guide to Helping Learners with Numeracy Difficulties” by Steve Chinn (2004).
  • “The Math Handbook; For students with maths difficulties, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia or ADHD” by Helmy Faber (2017).

Dyslexia and Maths Difficulties

Maths difficulties are common in students with Dyslexia. The areas of maths that students with dyslexia find the most difficult are:

  • The language of maths: Some students struggles to read and understand the vocabulary in maths questions, and therefore do not know what task they are being asked to do. Many different words can be used to describe the same action, e.g. add, increase, plus, total.
  • Sequencing: The learning of maths is very sequential, but to successfully complete many maths problems a very strict sequence must be followed. Learning multiplication tables is all about learning a strict sequence of information.
  • Orientation: Difficulties with orientation and direction can lead to confusion of maths symbols. Some people with dyslexia show weakness in the Coding subtest in the assessment, meaning that they struggle to decode symbols accurately and quickly.
  • Memory: There are many facts, figures, tables, and formulas which have to be learnt and recalled accurately.
  • Confidence: A lack of confidence in their own maths ability can worsen the above difficulties.

For more information on strategies for dyslexia and maths you can download our handout below:

Dyslexia and Maths Difficulties (PDF)