When Sums Don't Add Up
by Fred Redwood
The Daily Mail: Education Notebook: 4th February, 2003.
Who hasn't come across this scene in a shop? The till jams,
and with no calculator to hand, the young assistant has to
work out the price of several items in her head.
The result is embarassing to watch as the junior struggles
with the simplest of calculations. Impatient shoppers
usually put this down to poor teaching, over-reliance on
computers or lack of intelligence.
But Brian Butterworth, professor of cognitive neuropsychology
at University Cololege, London, believes it could be down to the
mathematical equivalent of dyslexia - "dyscalculia".
He said: "Recent studies in Lancashire and Norway reveal that between 3.5
per cent and 10 per cent of people have it.
"Dyscalculics cannot understand even simple number concepts. They have
an impaired sense of number size, trouble adding in multiples of two
or three, and can't comprehend the difference between say, 10, 100,
1,000 and so on, when written as numbers."
Dyscalculia was discovered in 1919 by Salomon Henschen, a Swedish
neurologist, who found it was possible to have impaired
mathematical ability while being perfectly intelligent in
What causes the condition? Professor Butterworth says: "We seem to be
born with a brain circuit linked to mathematical ability."
"Babies can do very basic addition and subtractions - place four teddy
bears with a baby, then hide one and the baby will expect to find the
missing teddy. Dyscalculics don't do that.
"Forty per cent of dyslexics are dyscalculic, but you also find some
extremely severe dyslexics who have no trouble at all with maths."
Identifying dyscalculia in children is difficult because there are so many
other reasons why a child might be poor at maths - ineffective teaching,
being with disruptive children, a personality clash with the maths teacher,
an undiagnosed hearing or sight problem or persistent absence from school.
So what are the warning signs? Professor Butterworth says: "It will be
evident from an early age. Learning how to tell the time will prove
extremely difficult because the numbers on the clock will have no meaning.
When playing shop and being taught how to carry out a simple transaction,
the dyscalculic won't understand the concept of receiving chnage.
"Most significantly, the child is likely to complain that he doesn't
understand whenever he is involved with anything to do with numbers."
It is tempting for parents to opt for after-school group teaching, but
Porfessor Butterworth warns: "We have found no properly evaluated form of
correction as yet. The best help is probably one-to-one tuition.
"Reduce anxiety levels - don't harp on about the problem. When
understanding breaks down in maths, the child feels as if he's drowning in
a sea of incomprehension. This leads to more anxiety."
Where can parents get help? The British Dyslexia Association offers book
lists and a pamphlet from the National Numeracy Straegy, outlining
children's rights to 45 minutes of tuition a day.
Dr. Lindsay Peer, deputy chief executive, says: "The parents should contact
the school's special education needs co-ordinator (SENCO) who should
ensure that the dysaclculic isn't asked to contribute to whole class
question and answer sessions, which will cause embarassment and
So is dyscalculia as siginificant a problem as dyslexia? Professor
Butterworth says; "It's like colour blindness - something the sufferer can
"Use of calculators and computers can help enormously, and we have found
that some children with severe dyscalculia can, nevertheless, achieve
"They can understand abstract mathematics despite struggling with the
basics. Later in life, the problem should only be a minor irritation if
there is technology in the workplace."
So when the till comes back to life, the dyscalculic operator can return
to welcome anonymity.
Contact the British
Dyslexia Association on 0118 966 8271 or www.