Home Education & Learning Recognising and countering the impact of dyscalculia on maths learning

Recognising and countering the impact of dyscalculia on maths learning

by Tania Griffin

While it’s not uncommon for South African school students to struggle with mathematics during their educational journeys, more awareness is needed about a learning disorder called dyscalculia to ensure students who may be dyscalculic are able to access the help they need timeously and effectively, an education expert says.

Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects an individual’s ability to understand and manipulate numbers and mathematical concepts, in a way that is similar to how dyslexia impacts reading.

In South Africa, there’s little awareness of dyscalculia as a condition and, consequently, there’s a lack of diagnostic and remedial resources for children with dyscalculia to receive the support they require.

Dr Lindiwe Mokotjo, deputy dean: Academic Development Support at IIE Rosebank College, a brand of The Independent Institute of Education, says learners often find mathematics challenging primarily due to preconceived notions about the subject based on interactions throughout their educational journey from a young age. “These negative perceptions often inform their overall attitude toward mathematics, thereby creating a barrier to effective learning.

“Furthermore, I have observed a direct correlation between students’ failure rates and the existence of an information gap, which hinders their understanding of mathematical concepts taught in the classroom. These as well as other factors could induce mathematics anxiety and developmental dyscalculia,” she notes.

Dr Mokotjo says there’s ongoing research that delves deeper into dyscalculia globally, and to a limited extent, South Africa. It’s postulated that dyscalculia could be as prevalent as dyslexia (estimated at between 5% and 10% of the population) and that its impact is equally critical.

Furthermore, there’s a persistent global concern—and particularly so in South Africa—regarding the subpar performance of students in mathematics generally.

“There are several undeniable benefits in understanding numbers—benefits many take for granted. However, individuals with dyscalculia are excluded from such basic advantages. Consequently, it can be argued that dyscalculia extracts a financial cost from government and society, in addition to the personal cost for individuals,” says Dr Mokotjo.

Recent research from the United Kingdom reveals that individuals with poor numeracy skills experience several detrimental effects, including lower income levels, with its resultant impact on livelihoods, increased likelihood of illness and legal prosecution, and a greater need for educational intervention. The study estimates that the economic impact of low numeracy skills in the UK amounts to over 48 billion pounds.

It raises the question regarding the corresponding impact in South Africa, which is arguably likely to come at an even higher cost.

The big question is: How can students living with dyscalculia be helped?

An option for support is to seek the assistance of a learning specialist or educational psychologist. These professionals can provide an assessment to determine the presence and extent of the child’s dyscalculia and recommend appropriate accommodations and interventions. Some schools may also have learning support centres that offer assistance to students.

“In addition, there are various technological tools that can assist individuals with dyscalculia. For an example, there are maths apps and software programs that can provide visual representations of mathematical concepts, as well as tools that can read maths problems aloud to the user. There are also assistive technologies such as calculators, abacuses as well as active learning strategy as a teaching strategy that can assist with basic maths understanding and calculations,” Dr Mokotjo shares.

She notes it’s important to understand that while dyscalculia can pose challenges, it does not define a child’s abilities or limit their potential.

“With the right support and accommodations, children with dyscalculia can succeed academically and in their daily lives. It is also important that individuals with dyscalculia understand the condition and are able to advocate for themselves and seek the support they need to thrive.”

Thus far, the exact prevalence of dyscalculia in South Africa has not been determined. Studies on learning difficulties in South Africa have focused mainly on dyslexia, with comparatively little research on dyscalculia.

“It is therefore essential that more research is undertaken to better understand the prevalence of dyscalculia in South Africa, and to develop effective strategies for identifying and supporting individuals with this condition,” Dr Mokotjo concludes.

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