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Dyscalculia and the everyday physical world

If you have any engagement with dyscalculia – for example because you are dyscalculic yourself, or because you know someone who is (or might be) dyscalculic, it is important to remember that dyscalculia affects everyday life. 

Imagine being at a children’s party with your child, and the host hands you a knife and says, “Could you cut that cake into ten pieces for me?” that might seem the easiest thing in the world.  You’d probably cut the cake in half, and then mark out each half section into five roughly equal bits.  No problem.

All so easy – but for the dyscalculic person, you might as well ask them to carry the cake across a newly laid minefield.  For such a person the issue is impossible to resolve, and worse, the dyscalculic person will know from painful experience, it will seem to everyone looking on to be a very simple task.  They won’t understand the dyscalculic person’s problem.

Our world is in fact based on numbers all day every day, and if numbers are meaningless to you, then anything that involves number, measurement, time, fractions, etc etc, also becomes meaningless.

But what makes it worse is that everyone else doesn’t understand how this can be.  The response to the question of “cut it into ten” of, “I don’t know how,” is liable to bring the answer, “Just cut it into ten,” which by and large is not very helpful.

Indeed, it is this lack of understanding of the fact that what seems obvious and everyday to most people can seem completely incomprehensible to a small number of people, that can make life so awful for many dyscalculic people.  It is a disability that is incredibly hard for most people to imagine because a) it is invisible and b) most people take numbers for granted.

This is why sometimes in the reports that the Dyscalculia Centre issues after a diagnostic test for dyscalculia has been undertaken, we offer some thoughts and help in relation to maths and the physical world.

For example, if a person (be it a child, teenager or adult) takes our online test and reveals that she or he doesn’t have an understanding of fractions, we sometimes suggest that this individual works with a person who does not have dyscalculia on the simple task of dividing things up.

One starting activity can be taking a piece of paper that is circular in shape with the instruction that it has to be cut in half.

That might seem simple and obvious to the non-dyscalculic person – you simply fold the circular piece of paper over on itself, and then cut along the fold, and you have two equal sections.  But that is not always at all the obvious way to proceed for the dyscalculic person.

But when that dyscalculic person has seen the solution and done it, the idea becomes a reality – especially if one then asks, “how many pieces of paper did we have at the start?” (the answer is one).  Then “how many do we have now?” (the answer is two).  “How can we check that they are the same size?” (fit one on top of the other).

Even that last moment of placing one piece of paper on top of the other might seem problematic to some, but once the process has been seen through several times, it slowly becomes understood.

Then the numbers are engaged.  Place the two semi-circular pieces of paper on the table next to each other.   “How many pieces of paper do we have?”

The answer of course is two.  The number “2” is written on each.

“But this is only one of those two pieces isn’t it?” asks the instructor, and once that is agreed, the number one can be written above the number 2, and everyone says, “one out of two”.

From there it is but a step to write ½ and introduce the word “half.”

The point about this is once it is introduced physically and has been repeated a couple of times, it is possible to move on to quarters, and then start adding quarters and a half together, introducing ¾ as one progresses, along with the new terminology and the written maths.

This is classic multi-sensory learning.  The physical objects (the paper) are handled, the words are said and the symbols written down.

It is slow, but over time, and with many dyscalculics, for the first time, fractions have a real life meaning.   Suddenly, instead of the sum

½ + ¼ =

being given the answer 1/6 (which is the most common answer for a dyscalculic person to give), the realisation strikes that the answer indeed ¾ - and that has a real physical meaning.

If you know anyone who could benefit from undertaking our on-line test for dyscalculia you will find details under Testing for Dyscalculia on our website. 

If you have any questions, please do email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tony Attwood C.Ed., B.A., M.Phil (Lond) F.Inst.A.M.