Butterworth – an FAQ on Dyscalculia

In the story below, Professor Brian Butterworth is quoted (from the Indpendent) on the differences betweenDyslexia and Dyscalculia. It seems, from this link, however, that the story may not have had space to explain Butterworth properly. Here’s his own Frequently Asked Question:

How do I recognise a child who has dyscalculia? What are the symptoms and how does this differ from dyslexia with numbers?

As a basic indicator, the child will be performing below expectations (primarily yours, the teacher’s) with no obvious reason such as emotional state or an illness such as, say, glandular fever. This underachievement may manifest itself in specifics such as problems with knowing the value or worth of numbers, in realising than 9 is one less than 10, for example, or in being able to rapidly recall (as the NNS requires) basic number facts – or perhaps in a totally mechanical application of algorithms (procedures) with no understanding of why or what the result means or how to evaluate the answer.

Some children with good memories and good general abilities may not present as underachievers within a class, but may be dramatically underachieving in terms of their true potential. Some children just get stuck in the counting-on phase of development.

So recognition goes back to Butterworth’s test, which should back your subjective conclusions with standardised information. This should also identify the symptoms.

The (part) question as to how dyscalculia differs from ‘dyslexia with numbers’ will depend on the interpretation of ‘dyslexia with numbers’.

Over the past twelve or so years a number of specific learning difficulties have been identified, labelled and researched. These include Asperger’s syndrome, ADD, ADHD, dyspraxia, semantic pragmatic language disorder and dyscalculia. A child may exhibit the characteristics of just one of these, but there is a strong chance that more than one ‘condition’ will apply. Difficulties often occur together and this may be causal, independent or due to similar underlying aetiologies. This may be of theoretical interest to the teacher, but the manifestations of the difficulties in the classroom should be more pertinent.

My guess is that the interventions used for one disorder may very well impact on all disorders and their various combinations. This is not to say that one programme of intervention will help all children. It is far more subtle than that, but the basic principle, stated by workers such as Dr Harry Chasty in the UK and Dr Margaret Rawson in the USA, is ‘If the child doesn’t learn the way you teach, can you teach the way he learns?’

You have to ask: is there such a child as a ‘pure’ dyscalculic or a ‘pure’ dyslexic (difficulties only with literacy) or are there cases where the two conditions occur together for whatever reason? My guess is that the answer may be ‘No’ to the first question, and a simple ‘Yes’ to the second. It may be that one difficulty is dominant, but that does not mean that the other difficulty is totally absent.

My experience of working with pupils who have been diagnosed as severely dyslexic is that most, if not all, have difficulties in at least some areas of mathematics (most commonly in number). The key word here is ‘difficulty’. For example, I always mention a severely dyslexic young man who obtained a degree in mathematics, but could not give an instant correct answer to 7 x 8. Some dyslexic learners will exhibit very few mathematical difficulties, but mathematics is made up of many topics and my experience is that many dyslexic learners will experience difficulty in some areas of number but may very well shine in other areas.

So, not quite a simple as “the difference between word blindness and number blindness” which one might have assumed from the original report!


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