Ho Math Chess Research and Articles > My experience of teaching children with math disability or dyscalculia

5 Mar 2013

My experience of teaching children with math disability or dyscalculia 


Frank Ho 

Ho Math ChessLearning Centre

Vancouver, Canada 


January, 2013


A few years back, I started to teach some children as young as 4 or 5 years old and I noticed that some of them seem to have tremendous difficulties in doing math when compared to their similar age group of children. I started to do some research and then found out some of them having the signs of dyscalculia. I compared the problems they encountered to the reported symptoms described in the research papers and found the descriptions in most of the research papers published so far were not detailed enough and also no remediation worksheets were suggested. I had headaches in teaching these dyscalculia children, so I started to document their problems and how I tackled their problems because I was interested in finding a way to help these struggling children and their frustrated parents. I made progresses and also have gained many insights in teaching these children and also produced a workbook based on my teaching experiences with those dyscalculia children to help pre-k and kindergarten children to overcome their math learning problems. 

This article is to summarize all of the last 4 years of teaching experience of dyscalculia children by reporting my observations and also offer some suggestions on how to help them. To help parents or educators understand dyscalculia, I feel we must understand what is dyscalculia and what sings might tell us if a child has dyscalculia, and the most important is .what we can do about it. 

What is dyscalculia?

There are many different views on how dyscalculia shall be defined. A neuroscientist might define it from the scanning result of a child’s brain, a psychologist might define it from the result of psychometric test, and a math educator might define it as a result of a math ability test. Most parents would think the problem of not meeting an expected level is not a problem because their children are too young.

As a math educator, my interest is to observe and to find out what I can do about it.

When can dyscalculia happen?

Some children may experience dyscalculia as young as 4 or 5 years old or even younger. They had experienced tremendous difficulties in learning meth and it was a challenge for me also to teach them. Dyscalculia could also persist to older children like grade 7 and after this, the symptoms start to appear unnoticeable to parents since they are allowed to use calculators but could be detected by very experienced math tutors by watching and examining their calculation steps, the most trouble area is when they have to do calculations backward such as finding factors or square root when a calculator is not allowed. Another sign is they never seem to be able to keep or get A regardless how much effort the math tutor has put in. This group of children has more trouble in solving word problems although their computational skills may be alright. 

Symptoms of dyscalculia

Some signs of dyscalculia or math disabilities are as follows: 

1. Writing 

Some dyscalculia children have problems in writing correct numbers and counting numbers so right from the start they already experience difficulties before getting into computations such as simple additions or subtractions. 

They cannot distinguish curve and straight lines when writing numbers. For example some children are confused about 2 and 3 because they are not sure if 2 has one half circle or two halves of a circle. 

2. Reciting and Counting. 

They cannot recite numbers fluently forward and can only recite from number 1. They cannot count backwards from 10 to 1 correctly or correctly saying the correct words. 

Even they can do 1 + 1 is 2 and all the sudden a few minutes later, they might give the incorrect answer 1 + 1 = 1. They only understand when objects are used when doing additions and when the objects are removed then they may have problems to get correct answers. So by observing them, I feel that it is very important we train them in reasoning and try to get them to understand the reasons behind all answers. 

3. Logic and pattern 

They have difficulties in identifying patterns and the pattern concept almost does not exist to them. Any number or objects which require some logic will be very difficult for them. They could not understand even after being taught, so their ability of understanding logic is not high. 

4. Retention and review 

It is not really their ability of 'can do' or 'cannot do' worries me but the way they solve the problems worries me. They can do well after repetitive instructions and practices but just a few days later, they would suddenly act in such a way that they seemed to have never learned before. They do not seem to have any retention. Also once they think something is right then despite my teaching, they are unable to change their thinking. For example, after I pointed out that 5 is correct way of writing and I asked some of them to write and trace it 25 times but at end they still wrote the wrong way. 

5. Reasoning 

When not doing math, some of them may be very talkative, but all the sudden they are very quiet when doing math and normally cannot give reasons on their own errors because they are very confused themselves. 

Even they know the answer of 5 + 5 = 10; they do not know what 5 + 6 is when asked. 

6. Response time 

They reply slower than non-dyscalculia children and need more time to get any answers. The do not seem to be able to recall information been taught to them even a few minutes ago. 

7. Mental math ability 

Their mental math ability is weak and need to use fingers to physically count each number to get answers. They need to physically see and count in order to get answers. They cannot easily transfer the learning from counting to calculating in their brain easily. Sometimes, they feel they do not have enough fingers to do math when going to grade 4. They do not have the innate to understand number sense. 

They do not like repetitive practices despite the fact that they could not do them in speedy way and complained they are boring when asked to do. 

What can math educators and parents do to help

In most school math teaching, dots, fingers, beans are often used as manipulative for sequential forward or backward counting for teaching addition or subtraction; children will have problems with this kind of technique since they do not get the idea of part1 + part2 = whole. So when doing reverse of addition (subtraction), it will be difficult for some children. They were taught to count, skip counting using dots or fingers but were not encouraged to learn (or did sufficiently enough worksheets) on how to add by relationships, logic, and by comparisons etc. methods. They need to be taught on how to use "methods" to do additions or subtractions, not mainly by counting. 

It is important for parents to understand when a child is behind then it is more important to build the foundations instead of trying to catch up with the current school work. For example, if a child is learning Times Table but could not do carry-over addition or subtractions at grade 3 then it is more important for the child to learn addition or subtraction in fluency before mastering the Times Tables. Try to catch up in the summer to learn Times Tables will be a better idea. 

Parents play an important supervisor role and shall monitor their children's progress at home and make sure they do homework. Without doing homework, the progress is slow. 

Parents also need to encourage their children to work harder and willing to take on new challenges, for example new worksheets or do some extra math work which they never learned at day schools. 

Parents shall encourage their children to think and also do something which may not be their preferred thing to do like working on math word problems. 

Ho Math Chess workbook integrate puzzles and chess into math workbooks, so with this innovative idea and invention, we hope that it will not be bored for children to work on and will be more fun for them when compared to the traditional math worksheets.

Frank Ho