Supporting Students with Dyscalculia:
Evidence-Based Tools and Strategies
This blog is an excerpt from How to Identify, Screen, and Support Students with Dyscalculia, a summarization of The Transformative Potential of Early Screening for Dyscalculia, The Discounted Specific Learning Disability by Dr. Sandra Elliott and Sam Wertheim, Doctoral Candidate.
Research supports early screening and applying evidence-based interventions as effective for helping students with dyscalculia achieve age-appropriate math levels (Bailey et al., 2020; Dennis et al., 2016; Kuhl et al., 2021). Matching math interventions to specific content areas of math increases the intervention’s effectiveness by personalizing it to that child (Chodura et al., 2015; Haberstroh & Schulte-Korne, 2019; Nelson et al., 2022).
4 Key Intervention Areas
We have identified four key intervention areas that caregivers and educators can use to help students. These interventions are not all-inclusive, but can help parents and educators address the specific areas of math where students with dyscalculia struggle.
These interventions include:
1. Child/student supports that impact the ability to learn math:
- Math anxiety interventions
- Self-efficacy interventions
- Working memory interventions
- Attention span interventions
2. Mathematics interventions:
- Number sense
- Memorization of arithmetic facts
- Whole numbers computation that is accurate and fluent
- Accurate mathematical reasoning
3. Instructional strategy interventions:
- Multisensory delivery of information and engaging the student
- Systematic, explicit instruction
- Extensive rehearsals or repeated experiences
- Use of the concrete-representational-abstract framework
4. Learning strategy interventions:
- Taking time to review
- Use of templates and graphic organizers
- Writing down the steps before solving a problem
- Use of schemas and frameworks to solve problems
Child/Student Supports That Impact the Ability to Learn Math
The following interventions can help students overcome math anxiety, and improve self-efficacy, working memory, and their attention span.
Math Anxiety Interventions
Many students experience math anxiety, which can significantly impact their academic performance and confidence. Fortunately, there are a number of interventions that can help to reduce math anxiety (Jordan et al., 2013). By helping students break down complex problems and encourage positive self-talk, educators can help boost confidence and reduce anxiety. They can also incorporate math games and puzzles into lessons to help make learning more fun. If a student is experiencing severe math anxiety, it may be helpful to refer them to a professional counselor who can provide additional support and guidance.
High self-efficacy—a student’s belief that they have done well in the past and can accomplish new tasks—contributes to their engagement with the math task (Bandura, 2012). High self-efficacy can impact how much effort students will put into the lesson and how long they will tolerate frustration when faced with difficulty. Educators can help boost self-efficacy by practicing “errorless learning,” and sharing anxiety-reducing techniques—such as deep breathing—in high-stress testing situations. Gamifying math can also help students gain confidence in a lower-risk, non-competitive setting that provides immediate feedback on their successes.
Working Memory Interventions
Students with dyscalculia commonly have problems with their working memory, or their ability to temporarily store and manipulate information such as the retrieval of math facts. Improving working memory can have a significant impact on academic performance. By presenting information in chunks and breaking multi-step tasks into subsets, educators can help students memorize and retrieve information more easily. Students also benefit if they are given longer wait times in which to process new information and have opportunities to reach automaticity with basic facts.
Attention Span Interventions
Children with shorter attention spans may struggle to stay focused in math class or complete assignments. (For children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, educators and caregivers should consult experts.) Educators can use visual aids to make math more engaging and incorporate bursts of physical activity into lessons, to help students improve their focus and concentration. Clear instructions and positive reinforcement can also help motivate students and keep them on task.
Here are a few of the mathematics-specific interventions in each of the four domains—number sense, memorization of math facts, whole numbers computation, and mathematical reasoning— that can help students boost competency in these areas.
Some instructional interventions that have shown success in improving number sense include (Fyfe, 2019):
- Games that require counting and recognizing that one number is larger than another, such as Chutes and Ladder or the TouchMath Connect 1 app. This intervention helps students attach a numerical symbol to a quantity and reinforces addition and subtraction skills.
- Using manipulatives and visual aids or the concrete-representational-abstract framework to understand the connection between the physical object and its abstract symbol.
Using the TouchMath technique has been shown to be effective in teaching math facts. It is a multisensory approach, combining visual, auditory, and tactile actions as the student places dots or object pictures on the concrete object, drawing, or the abstract numeral. This simultaneously allows the child to connect the concrete, semi-concrete, and abstract version of the numeral. As the child reaches mastery in number recognition, the dots are removed. Dice, counters, TouchMath numerals, texture cards, etc. can all be used to support this strategy (Yikmis, 2016).
- Having students draw the physical item or represent it with dots, squares, etc. before attaching the appropriate symbol to the drawing. Using the TouchMath Build It, Draw it, Write It (BiDiWi) sheet is an effective instructional strategy.
Memorization of Arithmetic Facts
- Set aside regular practice time each day to help a student build fluency, using flashcards, practicing mental math, or playing math games that focus on arithmetic skills such as dominoes.
- Focus on one set of facts at a time to avoid overwhelming the student by asking them to memorize all arithmetic facts at once. Instead, focus on one operation at a time, such as addition or subtraction, and gradually add more sets as they achieve mastery.
- Conduct non-competitive quick sprints or math fluency tests to help students memorize math to increase students’ accuracy and then speed. It is important that the student beat their own time or number correct, and it not be a competitive exercise at this point.
Whole Numbers Computation that is Accurate and Fluent
Instructional interventions that have shown success in improving math computation include:
- Timed trials or practices with paper and pencil where students only compete against themselves to improve accuracy and speed.
- Computer games that enable practice for memorization and fluency.
- Using a mind map or mathematical modeling to assist students in conceptual understanding (Powell, Fuchs, et al., 2009).
- Word problem-solving that asks students to break own problems into smaller steps (Fuchs, Fuchs, et al. 2012).
Accurate Mathematical Reasoning
Accurate mathematical reasoning refers to the process of using logical and precise methods to arrive at correct solutions to mathematical problems. Students need to master accurate mathematical reasoning to achieve success in many academic and professional fields. It requires building a combination of knowledge, skills, and attention to detail.
Key elements include:
- Understanding mathematical concepts
- Using appropriate mathematical methods
- Checking for errors
- Communicating results
For example, playing logic games, such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles, helps students develop their logical reasoning skills by improving their ability to analyze relationships and make connections between different pieces of information.
Instructional Strategy Interventions
As educators aim to improve students’ math skills in the four targeted domains, they can use research-supported instructional strategies including:
- Multisensory interventions that aim to increase motivation and boost conceptual knowledge gain (APA, 2022; Mahmud, 2020). This could include dance or choral response, which is not only engaging and provides for practice but also is known to help the brain retrieve facts (Doi, 2018). It also includes the use of presenting visual, auditory, and tactile input concurrently as is used in TouchMath materials (Abdou, 2020; 81Taneja, 2019; Urton et al., 2022; Vinson, 2004; Waters & Boon, 2011; Wisniewski, 2002).
- Systematic explicit instruction focused on basic arithmetic competencies. Explicit instruction includes a review of prerequisite skills, checking for understanding, direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice.
- Concrete-Representational-Abstract (Bouck et al., 2018; Jacobsen, 2020; Mahmud, 2020; Mononen, 2014) strategies use manipulatives and visual representations for problem-solving and practice so that students can connect abstract symbols and numerals to their numerical values through a fading technique. The use of color is encouraged as it adds an extra element of being engaging to any age student.
The use of dice, Touch Numerals, etc. allows student to directly 83 connect the concrete and the abstract. Using cereal, beads, tiles, and chips also enables a tactile technique for engaging the students and explore the math concept or demonstrating their understanding of it (Cihak & Faust, 2008; Yikmis, 2016; Ellingsen & Clinton, 2017; Fletcher, 2010; Kot et al., 2018; Taneja, 2019).
Learning Strategy Interventions
When a student has dyscalculia, there will usually be areas of mathematics they will permanently struggle with, and there are strategies they can use to overcome these challenges. Educators can teach students the following learning strategies as they attempt to master various math concepts and skills.
Students should be encouraged to:
- Take time to review work, deliberately slow down and read a problem twice, and ask themselves if the answer is logical.
- Use templates and graphic organizers such as Frayer charts and TouchMath BiDiWi templates.
- Solve a problem and then use the inverse operation to check their own work to decrease mistakes as an additional way to check or solve a problem.
No matter what intervention is used, educators and caregivers should support the student first in order to prevent further math anxiety or disengagement with a task that they find difficult.
TouchMath is an evidence-based, multisensory approach to mathematics that can help students when other math learning solutions fail. If a student suffers from dyscalculia, they can still succeed in mathematics, and we have the resources to support you so you can better support them.
- Our Dyscalculia 101 page is your one-stop-shop for all things dyscalculia.
- Checkout our dyscalculia workshop sessions.
- Access our free dyscalculia screening tool.
We’re changing the way students experience math. Ready to talk interventions?