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Have a kid who hates math? This just might be the answer.


I’ve always hated math. I’m bad at math. I still count on my fingers and can’t tell the “more-than” symbol from the one for “less than.” True confession: I haven’t been able to help one of my four kids with math homework since, oh, first grade.

Frankly, reporting and writing this story has been torture because it involves explaining things about…math. And numbers. Did I mention I hate math?

So when I heard there really is something called “math dyslexia,” I perked up.

Could I have math dyslexia? Could your child?

The short answer is that it’s still hard to know. There are no standard diagnostic tests for this brain-wiring glitch that makes it hard to learn basic arithmetic skills. But it’s a real, recognized learning disorder that’s only begun to get wider recognition by scientists and teachers in the past 10 to 15 years.

That’s about three decades behind research on reading dyslexia (the kind everyone’s heard of). It’s not clear yet if or how the two disorders are related. But they might be equally common—at least 7 to 10 out of every 100 people, researchers estimate.

Maybe the best thing to know about math dyslexia: We can help ALL kids avoid its pitfalls, scientists now believe.

And the earlier we start, the better. (Parents of toddlers and preschoolers, keep reading!)

First, meet the real term: “developmental dyscalculia”

That’s pronounced “dis-kal-CUE-lee-ah.” Right, not exactly a household name. (Then again, dyslexia wasn’t either, a generation ago.) It literally means “bad counting.”

“The core difficulty of dyscalculia is with the meaning of numbers—things like understanding symbols, quantity, sequencing, and basic number tasks,” says Daniel Ansari, a neuroscientist who heads the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at Ontario’s Western University.

Dyscalculia is also described as lacking “number sense”—understanding the basics of how numbers work. Pioneering researcher Brian Butterworth of University College London calls it “number blindness,” similar to how some of us are color blind.

For example, your child might be able to count his toys: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But when you then ask how many toys he has, he has no idea—he can’t connect the act of counting to the meaning of it. Most kids can do this by age 3.5, Ansari says.

Early understanding of numbers predicts how well kids are able to do math calculations later, research shows.

Signs of trouble

It’s tricky to compare your child against a list of specific skills because kids’ abilities advance at different rates. All kids count on their fingers, for example. But a child with dyscalculia might have persistent trouble with the following:

In preschool and kindergarten:

  • Telling which of two numbers is larger

  • Putting numbers in order

  • Counting a small group of objects (like dots on a paper)

  • Counting in the right order

  • Understanding that “three dogs” is the same as “three cats” or “three wishes.”

  • Identifying Arabic numerals (1,2,3)

  • Connecting a numeral (“4”) to an amount (“four crayons”)

  • Estimating how many of something there are (quantity)

  • Moving past the stage of counting on fingers to more efficient strategies

In primary grades:

  • Learning and recalling math facts (2+2=4)

  • Doing basic single-digit addition and multiplication

  • Learning the sequence of steps to solve simple math problems

  • Using multiplication and arithmetic tables

All kids have to learn these skills. But kids with dyscalculia get stuck on them. They have more trouble with them compared to peers, then fall behind them.

Possibly because similar pathways in the brain are involved, people with dyscalculia may also be frustrated by other numerical or spatial tasks. For example:

  • Reading a clock face

  • Doing mental arithmetic

  • Reading a map (they might turn it in the direction it’s being used)

  • Knowing left and right

  • Remembering phone numbers and other data