Learning Difficulties: What Is Dyscalculia?

By Siti Aishah Shukri, senior educational therapist

The Singapore educational system is known for producing students who are well versed in maths, science and reading, and, in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, Singapore students came out top in maths, science and reading. In such a highly successful and competitive society, children are naturally expected to do well and this sometimes leads to a lack of understanding about the difficulties that some students face with maths.

In the same way that those who have dyslexia have difficulty processing the written language, children with dyscalculia face challenges in acquiring arithmetical skills. Dyscalculic learners may have difficulties in understanding simple number concepts, grasping numbers intuitively and learning number facts and procedures.


According to research, dyscalculia affects two per cent of the world’s population, and experts are still undecided on whether there are differences between the difficulties in maths experienced by people with dyscalculia and those with other learning difficulties such as dyslexia. This is because the difficulties presented often overlap.

Mathematical difficulties are more complex than literacy ones because there is no single scale to measure learning difficulties in maths. These challenges come in a broad spectrum of severity.

Nevertheless, there are a few precursors for detecting such problems in young children, especially those between the ages of four to seven, and provide them with timely intervention:

  • Lack of excitement in participating in games that involve maths such as ‘snakes and ladders’ or gives up easily
  • When counting numbers, tendency to skip over numbers or inability to remember them in the right order compared to their peers
  • Difficulties in one-to-one correspondence between numbers being recited and objects being counted; inability to tell how many objects there are. For example, your child would rather show than tell you the number of grapes on a plate
  • Inability to notice patterns easily such as more versus less
  • Inability to ‘sense’ even very small quantities without counting
  • Inability to estimate if a numerical answer is reasonable
  • Problems with counting money

Such problems with learning maths, such as counting grapes on a plate, may not stand out when a child is younger. But upon entering primary school, a child struggling with maths skills will be more easily noticed. They will not enjoy playing games with elements of maths, especially in a social setting. While their peers will progress to addition with regrouping, they may still struggle with basic additions such as ‘4+2’. Another contributing aspect of identifying children who could have dyscalculia or learning difficulties in maths is the acquisition and development of early language, on top of estimation skills and learning of symbols. Parents should consider seeking multiple diagnoses for their children to obtain a better conclusion.

What can you do if you suspect your child may have learning difficulties in maths?
Although formal diagnosis of dyscalculia should be carried out after the age of six, parents can help to strengthen the child’s mathematical ability by integrating maths skills into daily life. Some activities to improve a child’s numerical sense are:

  • Flashing your fingers quickly and asking the child to tell you the number of fingers without counting
  • Asking them to pass a small quantity of objects to you and guiding them in counting one-to-one correspondence if they just grab a few instead of taking the exact quantity
  • Making dot cards for the child to tell the number of dots without counting, starting from one to five dots
  • Playing the tangram set and asking the child to recreate the figure. You can download various pictures from the internet
  • Playing the ‘guess the mystery number’ game that goes: “I am thinking of a number between one and 10. What is the number?” Keep giving the child clues such as: “No, the number is more or less than that”
  • Playing ‘snakes and ladders’ in a positive environment where the child feels safe to make mistakes and clarify when in doubt
  • Reading story books with elements of maths such as The Hungry Caterpillar and Ten Apples Up on Top
  • Making number stories in your daily conversation. For example: “I have two pencils in my left hand and three pencils in my right hand. How many pencils do I have altogether?”
  • Using the correct terms in your daily speech and introducing the vocabulary for mathematical symbols such as ‘+’ and ‘–‘
  • Make the learning of maths fun!


Siti Aishah Shukri is a senior educational therapist at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) with more than eight years’ experience teaching children with specific learning differences. She provides small-group intervention in mathematics, as well as literacy, and is passionate about reaching out to children through ways that they learn best.

DAS offers maths intervention classes for students with dyslexia from primary 1 to 6. The methodology applied is closely synchronised to the math syllabus of the mainstream schools, with the aim of bridging the gap between a student’s ability and the mainstream syllabus.


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