Dyslexia for mathematics exists, and it's called dyscalculia

Almost everyone has heard of dyslexia. However, dyscalculia, its mathematical "counterpart", is a great unknown in society. This learning problem affects many people, and its consequences can affect the work future of those who suffer from it. There are more and more researchers and solutions trying to tackle the problem. How do they deal with the problem?

Dyscalculia, a more common shadow than we think

Difficulty in learning mathematics, or dyscalculia, is considered the equivalent of dyslexia but, instead of affecting the expression of the mother tongue, it is a problem when it comes to understanding and performing mathematical calculations. "Dyscalculia is a difficulty for learning mathematics that has a neurobiological origin and is not due to attention problems, intellectual problems or school deprivation," says Javier García Orza, from the Laboratory of Numerical Cognition, at the University of Malaga.

As he explains, this definition is important because it implies that there are children who have difficulties with mathematics but do not have dyscalculia. "We know that attention problems, intellectual deficits and the lack of adequate instruction make learning difficult. However, children with dyscalculia have special difficulties in learning number relationships and operability, even despite having good instruction, normal intellectual levels and being able to have normal attention. That said, dyscalculia sometimes coexists with attention deficits, but this does not mean that it originates from them. "

The incidence of dyscalculia, continues the expert, is estimated at between 4 and 8% of the population. "These data suggest that a teacher who has 25 students is quite likely to have a student with dyscalculia in class." The consequences of dyscalculia can be as serious as others derived from learning problems. "Symptoms vary with age and sometimes are somewhat hidden, especially in children with high intellectual levels. When they are young, before compulsory schooling, the world of the numerical is relatively foreign to them."

In the first years this means that children understand small amounts but not much beyond three or four, Javier explains. "They also have a hard time deciding where there are more elements, counting, and they may have difficulty understanding words and concepts related to mathematics, such as 'bigger than' or 'the smallest'. In elementary school they still have some difficulties with counting, especially large numbers. "

"In advanced courses," he continues, "they still use their fingers to solve operations, they easily forget mathematical concepts and procedures such as those used in multi-digit additions despite appearing to master them the day before. They also have great difficulty learning multiplication tables, they are not alerted when they give a clearly wrong result, and in their daily lives they make mistakes with money and hours with ease. In secondary school many of these problems persist and, although they may dominate some procedures, they do not understand the logic behind the themselves. "

All of these problems, as with dyslexia, have very negative consequences in the learning stage of children. "At an academic level, the child fails in mathematics and runs away from subjects related to this area. On an emotional level, he suffers, does not understand his disability and associates it with being clumsy. Dyscalculia weakens his self-esteem and this often becomes Lack of motivation and dropping out of other subjects, including those that are not related to mathematics. In the long term, dyscalculia and its more immediate consequences can compromise the child's future employment. "

The 'dyslexia of mathematics'

When talking about dyscalculia, it is impossible not to think about his cousin, dyslexia. There is a clear parallel between the two dysfunctions. However, its origin and its manifestation are different, of course. "Despite having a practically similar incidence (and sometimes both occurring together), the knowledge about dyslexia and dyscalculia is clearly different," confirms the researcher.

"Both are learning difficulties with important consequences," he explains. "However, the difference in knowledge of one and the other means that while the child who has difficulties with reading quickly everyone is labeled dyslexic, and somehow excuses and seeks solutions in the form of programs intervention and curricular adaptations, the child with difficulties in mathematics is labeled awkward, and it is assumed that he does not give more.

This has important consequences for the future of children. "In recent studies in the United Kingdom, it has been observed that those children who had more difficulties with mathematics had a lower socioeconomic level and fewer job opportunities years later," says Javier.

"And it was found that mathematics had greater predictive power in socio-occupational status than reading skills," he says, comparing the implications between these two learning problems. "The numbers are present in practically all work activities, both high and low level, more even than reading. Hence its impact."

The million dollar question: can it be cured?

"Dyscalculia can be treated, but that does not mean that it is easy, nor that we will always reach normal levels," the expert quickly clarifies. "Specific programs must be used for learning mathematics that must start from the level in which the child is, which does not always coincide with that of the course in which he or she is, that is to say, with the one requested in his or her school" .

But can new technologies help in this role? We have contacted Daniel González de Vega, he is an industrial engineer specialized in Robotics and founder of Smartick, an application for children designed to complement and improve the learning of mathematics. Although there are hundreds of similar applications, we have talked to Daniel about his direct involvement with dyscalculia. They are currently working with the University of Malaga to develop an early diagnosis method for this dysfunction.

"We are working with specialists from the University of Malaga in the design of an online test for the early diagnosis of dyscalculia," confirms the engineer. "The idea, once we have the validated and scaled test, is to be able, with a reasonably high degree of precision, to identify risk profiles. An accurate and conclusive diagnosis will always have to be made with a specialist."

According to the experts, as Javier explained, detection of the problem is essential to be able to treat it properly. As with dyslexia, early diagnosis is essential in minimizing its consequences. Healing may not be the right word. But it can be treated. And for this it is essential to know the problem.

Digital tools to learn math

Smartick is an application that helps learning mathematics. Due to its Spanish origin and its involvement with dyscalculia, it has caught our attention, especially because it made us discover its existence. "In children with dyscalculia, or other disorders for learning mathematics, a very well planned approach to the subject is essential," explains Daniel.

"One that allows them to advance exactly at the rate that they are capable of progressing, without imposing a rhythm that they are not able to follow and that ends up generating frustration, low self-esteem and rejection of matter," he continues. Javier expands our vision in this regard: "It is usually necessary to take a step back, go to the origin, and then take steps forward."

"Many programs train memory or attention," he continues. In other words, different cognitive processes in the hope that by improving these, dyscalculia will improve. From my point of view, although this is a good complement, the programs should be aimed at working on basic numerical skills such as the physical manipulation of quantities, the association of Arabic numbers with quantities, the use of the mental line, etc. " .

"If we want to facilitate learning, we must use progressive programs," agrees Daniel, "well structured by levels and that represent the numerical in different formats, that is, that they rely on the manipulable and on visual representations. Much of the success is there". "In that sense," adds Daniel, "Smartick, as it precisely adjusts to the profile and performance of each child, greatly facilitates learning."

"Starting from a playful environment, and thanks to its adaptive algorithm," explains Javier, who collaborates as a researcher with the Smartick team, "the program presents exercises appropriate to the child's level. This allows him to succeed, feel good doing math , at the same time that little by little he is raising the level and introducing new concepts. In this way he learns and stops seeing mathematics as something impossible ".

Specialists and application a successful duet

Applications of this type are useful in learning. But they can be especially positive when we are faced with a problem like dyscalculia. However, not everything is a path of roses or a panacea. "Obviously a computer platform, no matter how good it is, cannot replace a good teacher," says Javier.

Specifically, we asked him about Smartick, based on his collaboration as a researcher in dyscalculia: "It is a very useful tool", he confirms, "which used as a complement gives us a plus in the intervention. We recommend that parents, together with the intervention sessions with the corresponding professional, their children with dyscalculia (and also those without it) use it on a daily basis. "

"Smartick in principle works for the way it is conceived," explains Daniel, "Children work content in a very patterned way and always at the pace of their own ability. Beyond that, we are working with specialists to include more specific settings for these children, and that they make learning even more effective, easy and easy ", explains the engineer, referring to his collaboration with the University of Malaga.

"We have many testimonies where parents of children with a diagnosis of dyscalculia have transmitted an evident improvement to their children with the use of Smartick," he says. We asked Javier, who works directly with some children: "We have applied the program in individual cases," he tells us, "and the results are good. For example, there is the case of a girl who in 15 days with the help of the application He was able to go from zeroing to zeroing. "

"In that girl," he continues describing the case, "there were two circumstances, a slight dyscalculia and a problem of anxiety to mathematics and low self-esteem. Using the application, as support, made him enjoy and gain confidence to face mathematics On the other hand, in the framework of an investigation that we are finishing, we have applied Smartick for several weeks in a compensatory education school, in which many of the children presented very low levels in mathematics, the results, even preliminary , indicate a clear improvement. "

Daniel seems quite satisfied with the researchers' results: "The team we are working with at the University of Malaga has cases (not yet statistically significant) where they have been able to clearly measure the impact of Smartick in improving the disorder, even with limited use of the application. The idea is to continue working to be able to detect risk cases early and adjust the tool to maximize the impact on these children. "

Choosing the right tool is important

"There are many computer programs designed for learning mathematics," explains Javier. "But, not all are worth it. They need to have a clear internal logic, that progressively and taking into account the child's performance, adapt to it and guide it."

For the expert, the application tutorials are a fundamental complement. "Programs that only propose exercises and are not adapted to the child's level are not worth it. The tools have to take advantage of their potential to facilitate self-learning and then combine all this with a playful environment that motivates the user."

"Along with this," he continues, "the application must facilitate the supervision of the professional and the parents. It is necessary to instantly offer information on the results of each session: type of exercises performed, performance in them, etc. Yes, We must not forget that the person with dyscalculia must be under the supervision of the corresponding professional: a psychologist, a teacher and even a speech therapist, who have specific knowledge about dyscalculia ".

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