20 years of dyscalculia
Is dyscalculia real, and if so how can those with dyscalculia be helped?
Twenty years ago when my colleagues and I started the Dyscalculia Information Centre we did so because we realised many people were becoming aware of dyscalculia, either because they felt it could explain their own failings at maths, or those of their own children, or indeed the young people they were teaching, but at the same time didn’t have access to much non-technical information on the subject.
Many wanted more information about what dyscalculia is, and what can be done about. Others wanted to know if it was just an excuse, having heard on social media that it didn’t really exist at all! Yet others wanted to know about the legal issues: are schools, universities and employers legally obliged to provide exam exemptions or support for people with dyscalculia?
We quickly realised that at the time it was quite hard to find out very much about dyscalculia in order to answer questions such as these. There were a few books published on the topic, but they tended for the most part to be academic in nature rather than of direct practical benefit to parents, teachers, or adults who felt they might have dyscalculia.
Thus our approach has been to work with everyone who comes across dyscalculia in one way or another, to help them understand what dyscalculia is, help those they teach overcome the problems dyscalculia bring, and also help establish if a person is likely to have dyscalculia, before spending substantial sums on a full-blown assessment undertaken by a psychologist.
Inevitably our work has taken us beyond maths. For just as a difficulty in using the written language has implications for many aspects of life, so does a difficulty with using maths cause problems throughout daily existence. Problems with dates, money (even in the days of credit card, the account still needs to be checked), time, distances, learning sequences, even geography…
Over time the Dyscalculia Centre has found its place in the order of things, providing classroom materials, low-cost testing, and information where required. And where we find we have often been asked the same question, we’ve tried to write a free briefing paper to provide the answer. The main areas of our work are listed at the top of each page on our website. Briefing papers are listed under “Latest articles” on the home page.
Of course many people want to know if they themselves, those they teach, or their own children are dyscalculic, and we offer help with this.
For others the prime question relates to colleges and universities which require maths at a certain grade for a student can be admitted on a course, and how students who are dyscalculic can be helped in this regard.
We also get many questions relating to what the law says about dyscalculia and education and employment – hence our article “Special Needs and the Law”.
Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A,. M.Phil (Lond) F.Inst.A.M
The Dyscalculia Centre
Dyscalculia in adults
- Part one: What is dyscalculia?
- Part two: Exams and employment
- Part three: Entry requirements and discrimination against dyscalculic people
- Part four: The tests for dyscalculia
Dyscalculia is the name given to difficulty in learning about, comprehending or using numbers, which is out of line with the individual’s general educational level.
In a typical case we might find a person who is clearly of average or above average intelligence, and yet when it comes to maths is unable to undertake the most basic calculations.
Such people will have difficulty in undertaking mathematical calculations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and can often find they also have difficulty understanding money, time, distances, directions and so on.
Dyscalculia is sometimes called “Number Blindness” and it was first noted in 1919 by Salomon Henschen, a Swedish neurologist, who specifically noted that the people he was considering had lower than expected mathematical abilities but average or above average intelligence in general.
The cause of dyscalculia is now known to be genetic – which means that dyscalculia cannot be cured. However it is possible, with the right kind of specialist teaching, for dyscalculic people to come to understand and use maths. It is obviously most helpful if this specialist teaching is undertaken at school, but because this does not happen in many cases, the dyscalculic person can reach adulthood having had no help in overcoming this disability and not having found the support and help he or she quite reasonably feels is needed.
A typical comment from a dyscalculic person who has never had any specialist help can be along the lines of, “I know I’m not stupid, but I just can’t do maths!”
Unfortunately, although dyscalculia is a recognised medical condition, it does not readily come under the ambit of GPs or the NHS, not least because it is genetic in origin and therefore (as already noted) there is no cure that can be offered. However this does not mean that dyscalculic people cannot be helped.
The Dyscalculia Centre is a private organisation which primarily provides materials to help pupils and students in school, college and university attain a basic level of maths ability. However, since we were founded in 2010 we have had a growing number of enquiries from adults who feel they may be suffering from dyscalculia – hence this page, and the fact that our tests for dyscalculia can be used by adults as well as pupils and students.
Thus we work in two major fields: one is the testing of individuals to see if it is likely that they have dyscalculia, and the other is the provision of materials to help people who are dyscalculic understand basic maths. Both of these fields of work can be used by adults as well as children.
The diagnostic test and the materials are not age dependent. The materials do on occasion make reference to “pupil” and “student” as the majority of people taking our diagnostic test or being taught using our materials are under 18, but this should not be taken to mean that the materials are not suitable for older people.
There is a tradition in British exams that where a person taking an exam suffers from a condition that has nothing to do with the issues being studied, but which may affect the taking of the exam, then the examining body should arrange for special provision to be made for the individual.
Thus a person who is dyslexic may be given extra time in a geography exam to write essays, and may also have a person sitting with him/her who will read the questions to the student and perhaps read back the student’s written answers. These arrangements are there because the aim of the exam is to test the student’s understanding of geography, not the student’s ability to read and write.
However the exact details of how exemptions are arranged is down to each exam board or organisation running the exam, and these not only differ between exam boards, but can differ over time.
But exemptions are special arrangements and are not always applicable. To give an extreme example, an accountant clearly has to be able to cope with maths at fairly advanced level, and thus the fact that a person is dyscalculic would not be considered an acceptable reason for that person not having the expected ability in maths at the start of the course.
Likewise, when a nurse wishes to become a prescribing nurse she/he has to take a maths test, and no allowance for dyscalculia is made, because being able to prescribe and administer the correct dose of a drug is considered to be the essence of the work. However it seems that some exam boards do now extend this notion, and are refusing to make any allowance for dyscalculia in any exam.
It is common for universities and colleges to stipulate that students applying for a specific course must first have certain qualifications. And indeed sometimes this is perfectly logical and understandable, as noted above with the case of a course in accountancy. But the institution is on less solid ground if teaching A level art, or a degree course in art, and requiring that the student has to have a good pass in maths at GCSE. However that claim is still made in some cases.
Unfortunately an appeal against this which goes to the university will normally be rejected on the grounds that “these are the regulations”. Taking the appeal further will be very time-consuming and normally the student wants to enter a course now – not in two years’ time after various appeals procedures have been completed.
Testing for dyscalculia comes in various forms, and it is important consider why you want the test done, as well as what the results of the test will tell you. Tests range from being free, up to costing £350 or more, so it is important to think this issue through before you begin making arrangements.
The simplest type of test is the indicative test, and an example of this is available on this website. It is available for free. The results don’t say you have or don’t have dyscalculia, but they do indicate if you are likely to be dyscalculic or not.
You can read about this introductory test here, and from that article you will find a link to the test.
The second level of test is the online diagnostic test , and again such a test is available from the Dyscalculia Centre. This test costs £49.95 and is much more comprehensive than the introductory test and the results are much more detailed, giving insights into where the specific problems with maths are identified as being. If you take the test and we find that you are likely to be dyscalculic then we will also provide you with materials that can help you overcome your dyscalculia.
However please note that these materials do need you to work with another person who is not dyscalculic. That person does not have to be a teacher or a mathematician; it just has to be a person who does not have dyscalculia – a person who has passed GCSE maths at any time in the past will be able to help you with these materials.
You can pause the test at any time to give you a break, especially if you feel worried about facing mathematical questions. You can start again later.
Calculators and other devices that can work out mathematical answers are not permitted at all in the test. You can, however, work out answers on paper or using fingers, but must not look answers up or get help. You may well find this short article on the test helpful.
The test costs £49.95 and this price includes the delivery to you of the resources that we feel will help you work with a friend or colleague to overcome your dyscalculia.
To proceed with the test please either send a cheque payable to Websites and Blogs for £49.95 to 1 Oathill Close, Brixworth, Northants NN6 9BE, or call 01604 880 927 where you can pay by credit card.
If writing to us please include your email address and we will reply, directing you to the website which will provide instructions for the test, and this will then allow you to move onto the test itself.
However if you would like a definitive pronouncement on whether you, a friend, or another member of your family is dyscalculic, you will need to see an educational psychologist who works with dyscalculia. To find an appropriate person you might wish to contact the Association of Educational Psychologists or the British Psychological Society As a very general guide we are informed that the cost of a test for dyscalculia is often in order of £350, but you will obviously need to check with these organisations to find if they have anyone in your area, what the current cost is.
But it should be noted that any diagnosis of dyscalculia, or possible dyscalculia, by a psychologist does not of itself do anything to help you overcome the problems dyscalculia brings; it is simply a diagnosis of a cause. Likewise you should not assume that having had a psychologist give such a diagnosis that a school, college, university or employer will automatically take note of this. We have come across situations in which individual school headteachers will refuse to give extra support to children who have been diagnosed by a psychologist, giving as their reason the fact that the school management do not believe dyscalculia is real or do not accept this psychologist’s diagnosis. You may wish to be particularly wary of schools that say, “We’ll have a look at what the psychologist says, and see what we think.”
The unfortunate decline in the number of inspectors visiting schools has meant that such an approach can be overlooked by the inspectorate or merely responded to with a warning from the inspectorate to the school and nothing more.
If you find you are dealing with a school or educational authority in any part of the UK which is being less than helpful you may well find that our article “Special Needs and the Law” will help you.
Here is what one headteacher said in response to materials received from the Dyscalculia Centre in 2020.
"I just wanted to write to thank you for the report and attached programme for this child. As a teacher/SENCo have struggled to find anyone to support an in depth assessment with regard to possible dyscalculia in this area of the country, so I looked online and found yourselves. I was completely unprepared for the thoroughness of the report and for any programme to support this child. I feel that your service has not only confirmed what my thoughts were but has given me the way forward but not just for this child, for others who I can see would benefit from the number exercises and the way that you recommend we use counters to support calculations. For Amy, we can't wait to get going!
"I will definitely be using you again as my first 'port of call' if I have concerns about another pupil and their mathematics at our school."
Lynn Paylor Sutton, Langdon Primary School
Training in the teaching of pupils and students who have dyscalculia.
By Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond) F.Inst.A.M.
The issue of arranging a training programme for teachers who find themselves working with pupils or students who may well be dyscalculic is one that has faced the Dyscalculia Centre from the moment it was launched.
We realised early on that the traditional approach of running courses for teachers would be something that would involve schools in significant costs – especially if we were to run the events in different parts of the UK. Worse, such courses would involve those involved in taking time out of school – when they could in fact be teaching those with dyscalculia.
So we set about finding a unique solution: a way of providing information about dyscalculia and materials for the teaching of dyscalculic students which incorporated the training that might otherwise be given on a traditional course.
Thus we now provide the background information we have on dyscalculia, plus a range of teaching materials, so that both maths teachers and SENCOs can rapidly gain the relevant knowledge and skills required to teach dyscalculic pupils and students, without having to go on courses
Naturally everyone starts with a different level of knowledge and awareness in relation to dyscalculia and maths education, and so we don’t have a prescribed process that we say everyone should follow, but rather a series of options.
Part 1: The Background
The most common starting point is a set of six articles that were written for SEN Magazine which are now reproduced on our web site and available without charge. I would suggest that you start by having a look at these articles before moving on.
Part 2: Dyscalculia and how pupils and students can be taught.
Many teachers then choose to read one or both of our two downloadable books on dyscalculia.
- Understanding Dyscalculia – a general guide for schools and colleges
- Methods of Teaching Maths to Pupils and Students with Dyscalculia
You can find these on the website (just click the link above), and you will find one particular extra benefit with these. Because these are books that are downloaded, you can then share them with colleagues in your school (either in part or in full), so that others can see how dyscalculia can be approached.
Part 3: Resources for use with dyscalculia pupils and students
If it is clear to you where the problems with your pupil or student lies, you can then opt to use one or more of the sets of materials that we provide that make up the lessons for those with dyscalculia.
These lessons are all totally practical and involve teaching maths in a totally multi-sensory way. They are now used in schools across the UK, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
The lessons move from the very basis of number, through the four basic functions of maths, and onto fractions and percentages. There is also a separate volume on time which is an issue that a large number of dyscalculic students can find complex and difficult to grasp.
The books contains numerous activities to be carried out with the pupils and students and the materials can be copied for use within the school so that others beside yourself can also use the materials without buying extra copies of the books.
Books for use with pupils and students who have dyscalculia.
Part 4: Testing for Dyscalculia
To help understand the exact nature of a pupil or students difficulty we have the on line diagnostic test for dyscalculia which can be taken through the Dyscalculia Information Centre.
Taking a test is not an essential pre-requisite for helping a young person overcome the problems they face through having dyscalculia, but it can be a very helpful way of ensuring that you are aware of exactly where each individual’s particular difficulties lie.
Obviously the above does not constitute a course in teaching dyscalculia in the traditional sense, but it is a route towards such work which many have used and found just as effective (and generally far less expensive!) than the traditional notion of going on a training course.
Chair, The Dyscalculia Information Centre
Terms and Conditions
Where you are purchasing a book
This book is supplied as a photocopiable download.
The purchasing school is permitted to reproduce any part of the book for its own use but must ensure that no part of the book is offered for distribution in any way to those not directly associated with the school. In particular no part of the book may be copied or distributed in any way to teachers or administrators who are associated with any school other than that purchasing the book.
Where the book is purchased by a teachers’ centre or any other type of organisation other than a school or college, it is provided on the strict understanding that the purchasing individual or institution will not make any copies of the book and will take all reasonable steps to ensure that it is not possible for any individual or group of individuals to make copies of the book.
It is specifically forbidden for any individual, group or organisation to copy all or part of this book and allow that copy to be sold or otherwise exchanged. It is also specifically forbidden to publish all or part of this book on the internet without the prior written consent of the publisher.
We receive many calls and emails from people with dyscalculia who would like to be teachers. They find that because they cannot pass the entry level maths test they are debarred from training to be a teacher. This short paper aims to help with this problem.
First it is important to note that each institution that trains teachers tends to consider dyscalculia in slightly different ways, and many have their own assessment programme, so it is not possible for the Dyscalculia Centre to answer individual enquiries relating to specific universities concerning this issue specifically, but hopefully the following points will be helpful.
The notion of getting extra time and support in examinations, or indeed an agreement that one does not have to take a specific test because of a special need, centres around the idea of helping a student whose ability to pass the exam is inhibited by a factor outside of the subject matter itself. In the classic case, a person studying history might have difficulty taking an exam in history if he/she has dyslexia. This is deemed unfair because the problems with English mean that the individual’s ability to grasp the essence of history, and reveal a knowledge of historical facts and an understanding of historical development, cannot be properly tested. So support in terms of having a reader or extra time in an exam is often made available.
However most GCSE, A level and degree courses in English do not give extra time or support to dyslexic students because they argue that reading and writing English is the essence of taking a course in English.
Likewise, when a nurse wishes to become a prescribing nurse she/he has to take a maths test, and no allowance for dyscalculia is made, because being able to prescribe and administer the correct dose of a drug is considered to be the essence of the work.
It seems that some exam boards now take the same position with GCSE maths – no extra time is allowed for dyscalculia.
With primary school teachers it appears that the government is arguing, or has argued, that an ability to grasp maths at GCSE level is inherent in being able to do the job of a primary teacher, and thus some universities will give no allowance for anyone who is dyscalculic.
If, however, the university with which you are dealing suggests that they will consider making an allowance, it is important to establish exactly what they require for this to be the case.
The most helpful universities will not only explain their situation clearly, but also indicate if they have their own testing and support centre (we understand Loughborough University does have such a centre through the group known as DDIG.)
If the university of your choice does not do this, it is vital to ascertain both whether they will consider dyscalculia to be a condition that allows for extra time or support in undertaking the maths test, and if so, the level of evidence they require.
In these circumstances it is common for universities to ask for a report by an educational psychologist which will involve a one-to-one session with the psychologist and is likely to cost around £300. (It is worth getting a price before entering into a contract with the psychologist, as prices can vary, and we are now seeing prices of £400.) And it is also worth checking that the psychologist you choose is one that the university recognises.
However in our view (and of course it is just our view) it is vital to get the university’s position expressed clearly in writing. The notion that one should “be assessed and then we will consider the situation” seems to us to be unhelpful in the extreme, given the cost of an educational psychologist’s assessment.
These links might be helpful if you are considering getting a report
But we would stress again that our advice is to check with the university first and get the fullest details you can of their position, as we have had reports of a university departmental administrator seeming to suggest that a dyscalculia report from a psychologist will be acceptable, only to find that when it comes to it the university says that all students have to pass the maths test (eg GCSE maths, or a specially prepared test run by the university) and there are no exceptions.
I am sorry not to be able to give definitive answers to the question of applying for a place to become a teacher, but this is because there does not seem to us to be a unified approach being adopted.
Tony Attwood, C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond) F.Inst.A.M.
Director, The Dyscalculia Centre