Dyscalculia: Not a Cool Math Concept

Updated: September 10, 2020

A parent sent me an email. She wrote her child had been diagnosed with dyscalculia. I looked up the word. According to Wikipedia,Dyscalculia (or math disability) is a specific learning disability involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending simple mathematics. It is akin to dyslexia and includes difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning math facts, and a number of other related symptoms (although there is no exact form of the disability).”

I’m not a doctor or a psychologist, but I take umbrage at labels, especially when placed on our children.

In the Wikipedia article, other symptoms of dyscalculia were listed, which made me think this disease might have afflicted me! Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Mistaken recollection of names. Poor name/face retrieval. May substitute names beginning with same letter. I do this!
  • Inability to concentrate on mentally intensive tasks. Depends on how mentally intensive the task is, but I could say yes on this one too.
  • Difficulty with games such as poker with more flexible rules for scoring. I’m a horrible poker player, besides finding it boring.
  • Might do exceptionally well in a writing related field- many authors and journalists have this disorder. OH NO, I’ve written a novel, so I must definitely have dyscalculia!

Could I have been classified as a student with dyscalculia if the word existed then?

Negative one times negative one equals positive one?

I remember when my 6th grade teacher told me that negative one times negative one equals positive one. I could not/would not accept this as true. It defied logic, or so I thought. My stubbornness continued for a week until a frustrated teacher called my parents. My father, an analytical engineer, got off the phone after talking with her. I waited for his reprimand. Instead of scolding me, he simply said, “Don’t worry about it.” The next evening he brought home a friend – a mathematician. The man sat down at a table with me and with pencil and paper proved that a negative times a negative equals a positive. He made it clear, and I could then move on with my math studies.

Lesson M3.4 in ElevatedMath.com covers multiplying and dividing integers. We use counters and a number line to show how multiplying two negative integers equals a positive one. Here are some excerpts from this lesson:


We also cover rules and students are guided through multiple problems to solve. Are there other ways of showing why a negative times a negative equals a positive? Yes, and here is a link to an algebraic proof I found. This might have been what the mathematician showed me years ago.


Don’t be tempted to label students as having dyscalculia if you can’t help them grasp a math concept. Labeling them as such might make you feel more adequate, but this doesn’t help the student. You need to remember that the capacity of children to learn is infinite, and you must approached them as unique individuals. Don’t dismiss them if they don’t fit into the norm. If students don’t get math concepts, don’t give up on them. You’re likely to have a really unique kid on your hands.

By-the-way, if you haven’t seen the TED video of educator Sir Ken Robinson (RIP), then you must. Be sure to watch it to the end.

5 thoughts on “Dyscalculia: Not a Cool Math Concept”

  1. What an enjoyable and enlightening post! I, too, must be suffering from dyscalculia myself these days since I am having a hard time remembering names, but maybe that’s my age catching up with me. The real-life experience with integers that Hall shared was an excellent case-in-point as to why we, as educators, must not give up on our students and continue to search diligently for ways to make math meaningful for each and every one of them!

  2. The article sent to you by Susan Midlarsky contains so much information about dsycalculia. I have posted it on my Facebook page because it was excellent and enlightening.

  3. I don’t care for the labels either. I’d rather figure out a way for learners to “defy gravity” (so to speak). Each of my years as a K-12 math teacher, I have met a learning challenge that some way, some how fit the descriptions above. With a few appropriate strategies to address the “symptoms” students were able to make progress and demonstrate a certain level of proficiency with the concepts being studied.

    I met two of my most challenging cases while teaching developmental math courses in college this past year. While analyzing the work/processes displayed on one of my students’ papers, I had to stop and ask with a puzzled look of course, “what do you see as the original problem? Can you write it for me?”. The frustrated, but determined, student what recorded what she saw on a separate sheet of paper and was amazed and embarrassed by what she wrote and what was on the paper. Because I understood what she saw, I worked diligently to help her see it differently.

    She worked on unlined slightly tinted sheets of paper that were folded in half or quarters. That significantly decreased the amount of time she spent on assignments and eliminated distractions. Doctors said her eyesight was fine. Very different I know. But, she passed the class with an average score. However, she used a few different methods recommended to help her throughout the course.

    What’s really interesting is she was diagnosed as dyslexic but is a very strong writer and the words don’t bounce around…. only the numbers.

    Thanks for the article and TEDx video. I enjoy adding new resources to my toolkit.

  4. It’s not easy to get math. I didn’t quite get algebra until college. A clear diagnosis based on careful testing can provide opportunities for students to get research based assistance with this learning disability. I can’t help but think, though, that if a child who doesn’t like math, he would love to learn about dyscalculia, hoping that he would be excused from doing his math schoolwork!

    Teachers and special ed professionals can benefit from learning about the various remedial lessons and research about this disability. They might be able to use some techniques to assist entire classes who are having problems with mathematics.

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