Understanding Difficulties in Maths:

It is helpful to view Maths understanding difficulties on a continuum with Dyscalculia being at the severe end

According to government figures, 29% of the students taking the new GCSE Maths qualifications will not achieve a pass grade of 4 or above (Ofqual, 2017). Some of these students will have a specific difficulty with Maths but many more suffer from Maths Anxiety, without an underlying condition. It has been suggested that some children begin to switch off from Maths at just 7 years old. (Chinn, 2017)

So, what are some of the reasons that makes learning Maths problematic for so many children and adults?

  • The move to abstract representations of numbers and concepts before they are fully understood.
  • Expectation for rote learning and retrieval of number bonds and times tables facts from an increasingly early age and the need for speed when doing so.
  • Successful rote learning of facts may conceal that the underlying concepts are not understood
  • Place value is a fundamental concept underpinning how we write and calculate with numbers – and yet it is often poorly understood
  • A right or wrong judgemental attitude to Maths undermines confidence
  • New or different areas of Maths are not linked and therefore only partially understood
  • The language used in Maths often has a specific meaning which is different to its understanding in everyday contexts. e.g. “Difference between” (two numbers) in Maths means subtract
  • Societal norms mean it’s ok to say that you are bad at Maths – unlike reading or writing.

Confidence will only come through achieving success

Ideas for generating understanding and confidence in Maths.

  • Allow plenty of time and be patient
  • Play games - dice, playing cards, dominoes, monopoly
  • Encourage the use of money, rather than plastic or e-payments, when shopping
  • Estimate the cost of buying items and/or set a budget/compare prices
  • Use computer software such as “DoodleMaths” to give practice at a level that will generate success
  • Save loose change and count regularly
  • Discuss Maths that occurs in television programs or everyday activities:
    Cooking/Bake-Off etc. (temperature/time/measures/ratio/calories);
    Weather forecasts (negative numbers/difference);
    Sport (averages/data handling/graphs/statistics/probability)
    Travel (measures/imperial v metric measures/Time_Distance_Speed)


A brain-based condition that makes it hard to make sense of number and Maths concepts

It is estimated that between 4% and 6% of the population have Dyscalculia and experience significant Maths difficulties despite good performance in other subjects (Butterworth, 2001), while others will experience it in conjunction with other disorders such as Dyslexia, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. For some people the difficulties are only concerned with arithmetic and other areas of maths such as geometry and algebra are unaffected. Although no two people will present with identical profiles, common difficulties that they may have include:

  • Weakness in estimating even small numbers of objects, without counting
  • Counting objects inconsistently
  • Lack of confidence in answers – keep rechecking or recounting to make sure
  • Continue to use their fingers long after most of their peers
  • Difficulty in counting backwards
  • Difficulty learning and remembering number facts and times tables
  • Confusion reading/writing numbers with zeros in them
  • Rigidly sticking to one method when calculating
  • Finding mental calculations difficult
  • Reversal of digits when reading/writing numbers
  • Confusion between “teen” and “ty” numbers, especially in number sequences
  • Difficulty in reading clocks and telling the time
  • Finding it hard to recognise or see patterns in numbers
  • Difficulty in using reasoning methods when calculating
  • Using money – always pay with notes rather than coins

Teaching methods to support learning

  • Use dice/spot cards (see dotspot cards) to build a sense of each number and their comparative value (without reference to their digits)
  • Use apparatus such as Cuisenaire Rods, Base 10, Numicon or money to explore and understand the base 10 place value system.
  • Use visual / pictorial explanations/diagrams to help explain new ideas and concepts
  • Insist that learners always use complete sentences to link the question asked with the eventual answer and explain how they know, an answer is right – my favourite word to encourage this is “because….”
  • Encourage use of reasoning methods, rather than counting, to calculate.
    (i.e. IF 5 + 5 = 10 THEN 5+6 = ? BECAUSE ….)

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