Dyscalculia gets good ink

In the prestigious journal Science, Professors Brian Butterworth, Sashank Varma, and Diana Laurillard published a review article discussing dyscalculia, the Learning Disability that makes arithmetic and mathematics an especially- miserable muddle for some students. In their review they explain why mathematical problems are important to individuals and society, what dyscalculia is, what neuroscientists know about mathematics and dyscalculia, and what they see as the outlook for dyscalculia.

Among the many important points that Professor Butterworth et al. make are that dyscalculia has been relatively neglected in comparison to dyslexia. This is an argument advanced elsewhere, as well; it is implied, for example, in the statement about the validity of Learning Disabilities that is soon to be published by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. In their summary, they wonder whether

  1. A deficit in numerosity estimation alone is a necessary or sufficient;
  2. for a diagnosis of dyscalculia, given the variation in behavioral patterns of dyscalculia;
  3. It might be possible to identify individuals with dyscalculia earlier by using neuropsych measures than by using behavioral measures;
  4. Individual learner’s cognitive and neural functioning will actually come to resemble that of their non-dyscalculic peers after they have learned compensatory mechanisms, as has been demonstrated in dyslexia; and
  5. Behavioral research will be able to feed back into cognitive and neuroscience research, providing confirmatory evidence about variations in performance and direction for testing of hypotheses.

And, they hope that greater recognition of dyscalculia by teachers and research funders will provide the basis for improved outcomes for those who have dyscalculia.

For those interested in the topic, this paper is worth reading. Professor Butterworth and colleagues underscored some important ideas (e.g., numerosity is a pretty fundamental skill). I was surprised that they did not discuss some other ideas (e.g., equality) and skipped a lot of pretty good work by prominent contributors such as David Geary (e.g., Geary, 2011; Geary, Hoard, Byrd-Craven, Nugent, & Numbtee, 2007). Although I agree with the authors’ concern about too little funding for research about dyscalculia, I found it odd that there was no mention of the funded projects that are underway (e.g., the US Institute of Education Sciences Center Improving Mathematics Instruction for Students with Mathematics Difficulties). I do not know enough about the neuroscience literature to comment on it, but I hope it is more complete.

Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education

Brian Butterworth, Sashank Varma, Diana Laurillard

Recent research in cognitive and developmental neuroscience is providing a new approach to the understanding of dyscalculia that emphasizes a core deficit in understanding sets and their numerosities, which is fundamental to all aspects of elementary school mathematics. The neural bases of numerosity processing have been investigated in structural and functional neuroimaging studies of adults and children, and neural markers of its impairment in dyscalculia have been identified. New interventions to strengthen numerosity processing, including adaptive software, promise effective evidence-based education for dyscalculic learners.

Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laufillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: From brain to education. Science, 332, 1049-1053. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201536

Link to Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education


Geary, D. C. (2011). Consequences, characteristics, and causes of mathematical learning disabilities and persistent low achievement in mathematics. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 32, 250-163.

Geary, D. C., Hoard, M. K., Byrd-Craven, J., Nugent, L., & Numtee, C. (2007). Cognitive mechanisms underlying achievement deficits in children with mathematical learning disability. Child Development, 78, 1343-1359.

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