Blog:  Expert Corner

When a Child Has Dyslexia and Dyscalculia, Treat the Math Issues Separately

Expert Corner blog post by Daniel Ansari
Jul 06, 2017

Girl working on math at her desk

When people hear that a child has a reading issue like dyslexia, they often assume his only struggle is with reading. They typically don’t think about whether he may also have a math issue like dyscalculia. The same is true in reverse.

But that assumption is wrong. Research has shown that kids who struggle with learning to read often also struggle with math and understanding numbers. It goes the other way, too. In fact, some researchers believe about two out of three children who struggle with learning math also struggle with literacy.

In my own research, I’ve rarely met a child with math issues who doesn’t also struggle with another area of learning (or multiple areas). The child may have more severe difficulties in one area versus another. But he still struggles with both.

We don’t yet fully understand why dyslexia and dyscalculia often co-occur. Early research suggests there may be similar genes that impact reading and math. But no matter how strong the connection, there are still big differences between these two learning issues.

It’s tempting to think there might be a way to “feed two birds with one hand” when helping kids who have both dyscalculia and dyslexia. It certainly would be more efficient. But for now, there’s no such approach.

Researchers have looked at the role of working memory and attention in math and reading. They’ve also tested whether training systems in those areas can help improve learning skills involved with math and reading. But the programs didn’t have an impact on those skills.

The takeaway is that parents and educators can’t approach dyscalculia and dyslexia the same way. You have to treat the math difficulties with effective math teaching approaches. And at the same time, you have to treat the reading difficulties with teaching tools that are known to help struggling readers.

In young children with both learning issues, that means working on strengthening phonemic awareness for reading. It also means helping them to understand quantity and the relationship between number symbols and quantities for math. (Some people call this number sense.)

Reading programs based on the Orton–Gillingham (OG) approach are known to be effective. There’s no such thing as OG for math, however. Even so, there are teaching strategies that can improve skills. And there are accommodations at school that can support your child, too.

Learn about types of tests for dyscalculia and for dyslexia. And watch a video to learn why dyslexia is diagnosed more often than dyscalculia.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Daniel Ansari

Daniel Ansari is a professor and Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience at Western University, Canada.

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