What Is Dyscalculia? Its Impact on Students and How to Support Them

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Dyscalculia: simply pronouncing the name (diss-cal-KYOO-lee-uh) requires a certain level of practice and deliberateness when discussing with colleagues. This article will introduce this math-centered disability in terms of its manifestations and diagnosis and offer a list of classroom strategies to help support students with dyscalculia.

What Is Dyscalculia?

Saying it’s a “math-centered disability” is convenient, but actually understanding what it looks like and how it affects people is nuanced and difficult to pinpoint. Dyscalculia refers to having difficulty in mathematical performance resulting from impairment in parts of the brain that are involved in mathematical processing (Kosc, 1974).

People with dyscalculia often have trouble with basic math skills, such as counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. They may also have difficulty with more complex math concepts, such as fractions, decimals, and percentages. As a result, students with dyscalculia may struggle in math classes, develop anxiety, and be at risk for failing or dropping out of school. This difficulty may also spread to other subjects that require math skills, notably science, technology, or engineering (Wilson, 2023).

Is Dyscalculia a Disability?

Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects one’s math ability. It is less well known than other learning disabilities, but it is real, pervasive, and an integral part of understanding math instruction in the classroom.

Although defined as far back as 50 years ago by Ladislav Kosc (1974), dyscalculia remains a relatively unknown and understudied disability to this day. This is especially apparent when compared to its more common reading-based counterpart dyslexia. Although often referred to colloquially as the “math version of dyslexia” or “dyslexia for math,” dyscalculia is in fact unique in terms of its physiology, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

How Common Is Dyscalculia?

Although fundamentally distinct, there is nonetheless a higher incidence of dyslexia in people who are also diagnosed with dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is estimated to affect 5–8% of the population. However, accurately determining the number of students affected by dyscalculia is challenging due to the lack of knowledge in our educational system, which affects the prevalence of adequate testing and diagnosis.

Dyscalculia Definition

The definition of dyscalculia is a deficit in mathematical performance caused by an impairment in the parts of the brain that are often associated with number relationships, calculations, mathematical reasoning, conceptualizing numbers, or processing numerical magnitude (Butterworth, 2018; Chinn & Ashcroft, 2017; Kosc, 1974; Sousa, 2008). Dyscalculia is localized in the brain and does not manifest itself in overall mental function or aptitude. Although dyscalculia affects limited regions in the brain related to mathematics, its impact can be significant as these skills are manifested not only in classrooms but also in everyday life.

In addition to the struggles with math already noted, people with dyscalculia have a fundamental inability to subitize. Subitization refers to the ability to easily associate a digit with a quantity, in effect recognizing the number of objects in a set simply by looking at the set. For instance, if there are three apples in a bowl, a person able to subitize knows that there are three apples without having to count one by one. Someone with dyscalculia is unable to see the “twoness” or “threeness” of a group and therefore must rely on less efficient strategies for problem solving (Sousa, 2008).

Diagnosing Dyscalculia

When a student has developmental dyscalculia—as opposed to dyscalculia brought on by brain trauma—it can be diagnosed at an early age. This is important because it means interventions can be applied to support these students before they fall too far behind and become demotivated to learn mathematics.

Dyscalculia is currently not diagnosed via a physical scan of the brain itself but rather by observations of students’ behavior, more specifically whether they are having difficulty in math. There are other reasons why someone may be struggling in math, such as anxiety or lack of instruction or motivation. Therefore, it is important to eliminate these alternative explanations before arriving at a diagnosis of dyscalculia. Adding to the complexity of a potential diagnosis is the continuum of severity, the lack of uniform guidelines for interpreting behaviors into a diagnosis for dyscalculia, and the use of different tests or screeners to uncover symptoms (Wilson, 2023).

There is no one assessment that can diagnose dyscalculia. Instead, a doctor or psychologist uses a variety of tests to gather information about a person’s math skills and abilities. This information is then used to make a diagnosis. Listed below are some of the tests that may be used to diagnose dyscalculia.

  • Standardized Math Test: This type of test is used to compare a person’s math skills to the skills of other people of the same age and grade level. Some tests can drill down into basic skills as well as assess higher order reasoning.
  • Clinical Interview: This is a conversation between a doctor or psychologist and the person being evaluated. The purpose of the interview is to gather information about the person’s math skills and history and whether there are other factors that can affect that person’s performance on math tasks.
  • Functional Assessment: This is a test of how the person uses math in everyday life. This may involve tasks such as counting money, reading a map, or following a recipe.
  • Screener: As research progresses, a number of screeners dedicated to dyscalculia are emerging. These focus on the specific aspects of math that students with dyscalculia struggle with the most.

If a doctor or psychologist suspects that a person has dyscalculia, the next step will likely be to recommend further testing or evaluation. This may involve additional tests, such as a brain scan, to rule out other possible causes of the person’s math difficulties.

two students working on tablets

Two students from the Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, California are working together. All students at the school have dyslexia or a related learning disability.

Dyscalculia Characteristics: How Does Dyscalculia Affect Learning?

The exact symptoms of dyscalculia and their degree can vary from person to person, and they are often similar in nature to other learning disorders. Unpacking these learning deficits is a challenge for researchers (Geary, 2004). However, there are some distinct dyscalculia characteristics and categories of mathematical reasoning that students with dyscalculia commonly struggle with:

  • Number Sense: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding the concept of numbers. They may not be able to recognize numbers, understand their order, or compare their sizes.
  • Arithmetic Facts: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty memorizing basic math facts, such as the multiplication table. They may also have difficulty performing simple math calculations, such as adding or subtracting two-digit numbers.
  • Complex Math Problems: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty with more complex math concepts, such as fractions, decimals, and percentages. They may also have difficulty solving math problems that require multiple steps.
  • Spatial Reasoning or Orientation: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty with spatial reasoning. They may have trouble understanding how to fit objects together in space, navigate their environment, or manipulate mechanical processes.
  • Time Management: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a task or keeping track of deadlines or the sequence of past and future events. Examples of dyscalculia can extend to related reasoning skills such as making sense of abstract facts, completing steps in sequence, and following directions in the correct order.
  • Money Management: People with dyscalculia may have difficulty with managing money. This includes having trouble counting money or making change.

Although often studied in school-age children, adults who have been living with previously undiagnosed dyscalculia their whole lives may still see it manifested in seemingly routine aspects of their daily life or work. Many everyday tasks involve mathematical reasoning, such as managing finances, telling time, following instructions, reading maps, calculating tips, measuring ingredients, keeping track of inventory, or balancing a checkbook.

Supporting Students with Dyscalculia: Examples of Intervention

Dyscalculia can be a frustrating and isolating experience. Students with dyscalculia may feel like they are not as smart as others (which is untrue), and they may avoid situations that involve numbers. Although the root cause of dyscalculia can be found in the brain, current neuroscience research indicates that the brain is remarkably resilient and its physical state can be altered by the environment. In general, the science behind potential therapies for dyscalculia is lagging behind other disorders, but the potential is certainly there.

Given the infancy of research around dyscalculia, there are a limited number of specific interventions targeted solely to dyscalculia. However, the consensus is that with early intervention and support, people with dyscalculia can still reach their full potential. Below is a list of classroom strategies to support students with dyscalculia:

  • Allow Flexible Time on Tests: Students often feel rushed and need to work through problem solving at a different pace.
  • Provide Frequent Feedback During Classwork: Ensure that students receive timely feedback before expending too much time and resources on an incorrect solution path.
  • Use a Multisensory Approach: Utilize multiple senses to reinforce mathematical concepts. For example, incorporate manipulatives, such as blocks or fraction pieces, to help students visualize and interact with numbers.
  • Use Concrete Representations: Use concrete objects and real-life examples to demonstrate mathematical concepts. For instance, when teaching addition, use physical objects like coins or buttons to help students understand the concept of combining quantities, or play anchor videos for students that depict mathematical concepts in real-life settings. (Math 180 begins each unit with an anchor video, and the videos from our Math at Work series are freely available.)
  • Employ Visual Aids: Implement visual aids such as charts, diagrams, number lines, or graphic organizers to represent mathematical concepts visually. Visual representations can make abstract concepts more accessible and understandable.
  • Play Math Games: When learning is presented as a game, it can turn math into a fun and achievable challenge and can be used multiple times to reinforce important skills outside of the initial instructional event. You may want to check out our article on how to use gamification in the classroom, or explore the math games that are a part of Math 180, Into Math, and Waggle.
student playing educational math game on a tablet

Math 180 includes a variety of games to present math to students as a fun and achievable challenge.

  • Encourage the Language of Math: Explain terms carefully, and encourage students to become familiar and actively use math terminology.
  • Allow Calculators: If the use of a calculator does not alter the construct being learned or measured, students can benefit by having basic steps made more manageable and error-free.
  • Reduce Processing Demands: Chunk and break down complex mathematical problems or tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This approach helps students with dyscalculia to focus on one aspect at a time and prevents overwhelming them.
  • Avoid Cluttered Worksheets and Materials: Provide written material that is broken out and spaced in a way that does not present too much information in a small amount of space. This is especially important for students with multiple disabilities like dyscalculia and dyslexia.
  • Provide Opportunities for Repetition and Practice: Provide ample opportunities for practice and repetition to reinforce mathematical concepts. Regular review and practice can help solidify understanding and improve retention.
  • Use Technology and Individualized Instruction: Incorporate educational technology tools, such as interactive math software (like Math 180), apps, or computer-based games, that offer individualized instruction and feedback. These tools can provide additional practice and support tailored to the student’s specific needs.
  • Provide Verbal and Written Instructions: Provide clear and concise verbal instructions along with written instructions to ensure comprehension. It may help to break down long instructions into smaller parts.
  • Learn about Dyscalculia: If a student is diagnosed with dyscalculia, it is important that they are aware and that their struggles and challenges to self-esteem are legitimized. It is also important for them to understand that they can overcome these challenges, become proficient in math, and have a growth mindset.

There is much to be learned about dyscalculia. Research into its causes, diagnosis, and remediation are ongoing. An important initial step in this process is increasing awareness among researchers, practitioners, teachers, families, and the students themselves.


Butterworth, B. (2018). Dyscalculia: from science to education, pp. 1–10, Routledge.

Chinn, S. & Ashcroft R.E. (2017). Mathematics for dyslexics and dyscalculics: a teaching handbook, pp. 1–22, Wiley.

Geary, D.C. (2004). Mathematics and learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37, pp. 4–15.

Kosc, L. (1974). Developmental dyscalculia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 7(3), pp. 164–177.

Sousa, D.A. (2008). How the brain learns mathematics, pp. 79–85, Corwin.

Wilson, A. J. (retrieved May 2023). Dyscalculia primer and resource guide. Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). https://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/dyscalculiaprimerandresourceguide.htm


Math 180 is designed to maximize educational outcomes for all students, including those with learning disabilities.

Get an overview of dyscalculia, including neurological insights, diagnostic criteria, potential interventions, and more in our webinar "Understanding Dyscalculia: Navigating Challenges in Mathematical Learning."

Get our free math intervention eBook today.

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