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Practice in Subitizing can Improve Math Ability in Dyscalculics

by David Mills  Ph.D., M.A. (physics, psychology)

Subitizing is the innate ability to know, from a brief glance, how many of a small number of objects there are.  Human babies can do this from birth, and this ability is shared with all primates.  Subitizing is the first math ability and forms the basis for much -- perhaps all -- math ability that follows it:  learning the meaning of numbers, counting up objects, adding and subtracting, number sense, and estimating relative quantities ALL depend on the ability to subitize.  Significantly, children deficient in math in second and third grades were found to perform much more poorly in subitizing than their classmates.

While subitizing is an innate ability and doesn't have to be learned, this ability CAN be improved with training!  Several researchers, in both the US and Europe, have found that subitizing ability in dyscalculic children could be improved into the normal range, typically with just 15 minutes a day of training with a computer program for three weeks.  More important, their math skills, as measured by standard tests, had also significantly improved at the end of training.  Even more important, the subjects' math skills continued to improve over the next year without additional subitizing training.  The dyscalculic children were now able to learn math from typical classroom instruction where they had struggled before. 

This is exciting news for those with dyscalculia and those who are trying to help them with this disability.  In my blog, I summarize evidence that a dysfunction in the subitizing module in the brain may be THE dysfunction that accounts for all of the subsequent math difficulty characteristic of dyscalculia.  Clearly, children in the early school years with dyscalculia can be significantly improved with only a modest investment in training in subitizing.  It may even be that older students and adults with dyscalculia would benefit from such training -- I encourage them to try.

Further information and links to training software can be found on my blog,  If you try such training, and/or find other software available, please let us know, either on this site or on my blog.  (Note:  I have no financial interest in any training software.  I am a math and physics tutor in private practice in the San Diego area.)

David Mills, Ph.D., M.A. (physics, psychology).