Dyscalculia: the everyday activities that can be undertaken to help pupils and students overcome their difficulties and enhance other areas of learning.

While it is possible to make many specific points about dyscalculic pupils and students and how they can be helped, it must also be admitted that not every dyscalculic child faces exactly the same problems or can be helped in the same way.

In other articles we have mentioned the fact that for many dyscalculic pupils and students helping them work with sequences of events can help them begin to focus on the ordering of events and issues that they encounter in everyday life. 

Thus asking a child to write down the order in which clothes are put on in the morning can be a very good way of focussing on the fact that there is a natural order in many things - an order that they will obey but which they have probably never thought about.

Elsewhere we have mentioned the benefit of encouraging pupils and students to spell out the exact order of events that is undertaken when taking a bath - including all the details that can be easily forgotten in the telling of the tale, such as putting the plug in, taking off one’s clothes, and so forth.

This can be extended into asking the pupil or student to describe the journey to school in ever increasing detail, describing the left and right turns if the individual walks part of the way, or the arrangements for getting in the car and how matters proceed once in the car.

Of course the child may well not know about unlocking the door, putting the key in the ignition (if that is required on this make of car), reversing out of the garage, etc, but this can be explored step by step, ideally with some input from the parents who can also help by discussing the sequence each day with their son or daughter.

A separate approach comes with the problem of solving mazes, for many dyscalculic people find solving mazes very hard and often end up just guessing randomly about how to find a way out rather than trying to work on a solution.

To help with this one can provide simple mazes at first which can just be drawn on a piece of paper showing the child, if it is helpful, the technique of working backwards from the end, which can often be easier than trying to find a route from the start.

Then the mazes can become more complicated - but never so complicated that the child is not going to be able to solve the maze fairly quickly.  It may seem like a game with little educational benefit, but it does show that through planning and logical thought something that looks impossible can be solved.  It encourages the child to slow down and work step by step.

Working with sequences also seems to enhance the use of memory which for some dyscalculic people is not naturally activated.  Where one starts is dependent upon the child and what can be achieved - presenting sequences that the child cannot remember is simply going to cause frustration, rather than enhance the child’s sequencing ability.

If the child is particularly challenged over number sequences one might start with a  sequence of just three numbers.  In each case one should, in the early stages, have a sequence that comes from real life.  It might be the numbers of the roads on the signpost passed on the way to school.  Or the number of your house and the house opposite.  Or the birthdays of three members of the family.

Where little progress is being made one might work with a very limited number of times table cards - which on the front have part of a sum or an element from a multiplication table.

Thus you might have

3 x 1 =

3 x 2 =

3 x 3 =

The child sees the question, reads it aloud, says the answer and turns the card over to reveal the answer.

Everything in this process is dependent on the ability of the child and the willingness of the child to undertake the task.  When each task can be completed without fault, it can be expanded.

Ultimately one might work on the child’s mobile phone number or the home’s landline number.  Somehow the numbers need to be given a meaning - and often working in pairs is a good way to proceed.

Thus a phone number that reads


Could be broken down into

79 25 97 33 71

There are many ways of giving a “meaning” to this sequence, but if we take it that the child is nine years old (or even that the child was nine last year and is now 10) we could ask...

What number appears most in your phone number?  The answer is 7, so we start with that.

What age were you last year?  The answer is 9, and so we are off  79.

How old is your baby sister? The answer is 2.

Tell me your five favourite friends at school.  5 becomes a remembered number.

So we have 79 25.  7 turns up most, 9 is last year’s age, 2 is your sister and your 5 favourite friends.  Alternatively you might pause at this point and do some maths with each question only involving those numbers.

  • 9 minus 7 is 2
  • 5 add 2 is 7

And the reverse of these sums, so 5 plus 2 is 7 and 7 plus 2 is 9.

Moving on, 97 becomes easy now because it is 79 backwards.

And so on.  The meanings don’t have to make too much sense, they simply have to relate to something.  Indeed one can play the game of working out a meaning for each number.  It doesn’t matter if one takes the ten allocated minutes just to work out a way to remember 79 25, for one can come back to it tomorrow and start applying the method.

So what we have here is a way of playing games with number sequences and spatial sequences as a way of training the brain’s “working memory” and getting it to be more active and to take information forward into the long term memory.

Incorporated within this is the notion of “overlearning” by going over the sequences and mazes over and over again even when the child clearly knows them.  If difficulties arise try to find something visual that links numbers that turn up in sequences.  For example, the number four as written by most children (with the flat line at the bottom) is the number seven upside down.  Six can be seen as nine upside down.  Simply playing with the shapes can help the child remember.

All of this work will expand the effectiveness of the short term memory (the working memory) into which information goes for processing and moving onto the long term memory.

Children who undertaken just 10 minutes a day short term memory using any of the methods above find they can expand the capacity of their working memory considerably within a matter of weeks.  The key requirement is that it is done for a short intensive spell every day without interruptions or distractions.

Eventually as the sequences become more complicated one can ask, in relation to a long sequence (such as the mobile phone number), where did the number six come, and the child will be able to say “it is the third number in the sequence” without seeing the sequence written down.

An extra benefit in all this is that research has generally shown that children who do undertake this sort of training for ten minutes a day also then show a rise in their general intelligence scores.  That’s not what the activities are there for - but it is a handy bonus along the way.

We might also note that even where these activities aimed at stretching short term memory are undertaken regularly by adults they once again are shown to enhance the score the adult gets in IQ tests.

Certainly the more these activities can be seen as fun by those taking part the faster there will be progress.  And we should not be too surprised by the rise in IQ test scores from regular activities undertaken in this way.  Research among children who learn to play chess, and who enjoy playing chess shows a similar rise in IQ.

In short using the memory by solving puzzles that involve shape, position and their own sets of rules, enhances the ability to handle the subject matter (in our primary example, maths), enhances the activity of the short term memory and then enhances the ability to score well in IQ scores.

Of course, what then also happens is that the pupils and students who do appreciate that they are improving their ability to do something also tend to feel better about themselves, and have in fact started the journey towards being lifelong learners, which is no bad thing in itself.

We might also note in conclusion that these types of activities are the complete opposite of playing games on a mobile device where nothing is learned save the ability to do the game.  There, the game is devised to become hypnotic - to make the youngster keep playing the game. Here the activities enhance the workings of the brain, and thus enhance intelligence and the response to later activities.


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Phone: 01604 880 927

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


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