Jupiter BC 2013



  • Researchers estimate that as much as 7% of the population has dyscalculia, sometimes called number blindness, which is marked by severe difficulties in dealing with numbers despite otherwise normal, or well above normal, intelligence

  • A cognitive scientist who studies numerical cognition and a learning disability likened to dyslexia for mathematics works on identifying its cause as well as ways to help those who suffer from it

  • Approximate number sense

  • Approximate number sense, distinguishes larger quantities from smaller ones, be they dots flashing on a screen or fruits in a tree.

  • A second ancient number system allows humans and many other animals to instantly and precisely recognize small quantities, up to four.

  • People who are poor at distinguishing approximate quantities do badly in maths, suggesting that the approximate-number system is crucial.

  • Some work shows that dyscalculics are poor at recognizing small numbers, suggesting that this ability is also fundamental to numeracy

  • If, dyscalculia is at heart a deficiency of basic number sense and not of memory, attention or language, as others have proposed, then nurturing the roots of number sense should help dyscalculics


  • The team tested 31 eight- and nine-year-old children who were near the bottom of their class in mathematics but did well enough in other subjects.

  • Compared with normal children and those with dyslexia, the dyscalculic children struggled on almost every numerical task, yet were average on tests of reading comprehension, memory and IQ.

  • The study confirmed for some that developmental forms of dyscalculia are the result of basic problems in comprehending numbers and not in other cognitive faculties

  • Determining exactly what those problems are would prove challenging

    • Approximation and a sense of small numbers, while critical, are not enough for humans to precisely grasp large numbers,

      • argues that another cognitive capacity is even more fundamental to number sense

‘Numerosity coding’

  • ‘Numerosity coding’ is the understanding that things have a precise quantity associated with them, and that adding or taking things away alters that quantity.

  • Young children who could not yet count past two nonetheless understood that adding pennies to a bowl containing six somehow altered its number, even if the children couldn’t say exactly how.

  • If numerosity coding is fundamental, it predicts that dyscalculics struggle to enumerate and manipulate all numbers, large and small.

Number Sense Games

  • The Number Sense games are intended to nurture the abilities that might be the root of numerical cognition and the core deficit of dyscalculia — manipulating precise quantities.

  • One game involves a number line, then the child is asked “What is the number that is right in the middle between 200 and 800? Do you know it?

  • A classic sign of dyscalculia is difficulty in grasping the place-value system,

  • A soft computer voice tells “Christopher” to “find the number and click it

  • The game involves zooming in and zooming out to rescale the number line, with the computer talking him through each move, a strategy that is encouraged, however it takes him more than a minute to locate 210

  • A Tetris-like game called Numberbonds, in which bars of different lengths fall down the screen and the person has to select a block of the correct size to fill out a row

  • This game emphasizes spatial relationships, which some dyscalculics also struggle with.

  • In a game called Dots to Track, for example, children must ascribe an Arabic numeral to a pattern of dots, similar to those on dice.

  • When they enter the wrong value the game asks the children to add or remove dots to achieve the correct answer.

  • Three months into the study one student seemed to be faring better at the number-line game, going so quickly that he is asked to slow down and explain his reasoning for each move

  • Dyscalculic children tend to learn much more quickly when they talk through what they do

  • It is also believed that his maths anxiety, a near-universal trait of child and adult dyscalculics, is fading

  • Other Studies

  • In 2011 a Swiss team reported that a game that involves placing a spaceship on a number line helped eight- to ten-year-old dyscalculics with arithmetic

  • They studied the children in an fMRI scanner during a task that involved arranging numbers.

  • One month after training, the children showed increased activation in the intraparietal sulcus and reduced neural activation elsewhere in the parietal lobes – a hint that their improvements in arithmetic were related to changes involving brain areas that respond to number.

  • There are now hopes to monitor the brains of students such as they practice Number Sense, to see if their parietal lobes are indeed changing

  • Scans of people with dyscalculia suggest that their intraparietal sulci are less active when processing numbers and less connected with the rest of the brain compared with numerate children and adults.

  • However, these may be seen as a result of these consequences, not causes, of the poor numerical abilities that characterize dyscalculia.


  • While some students improve Other students are improving more slowly, but it is not easy to say why

  • Dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder are common among dyscalculics, and it can be difficult to untangle these problems,

  • In 2009 Number Race, a game developed, modestly improved the ability of 15 dyscalculic kindergarten children to discern the larger of two numbers, but that it had no effect on their arithmetic or counting

  • With the right practice and attention from teachers and parents, dyscalculic children can thrive, computer games are a supplement, not a replacement, for one-on-one tutoring.

  • In addition the games are designed with the interest of the children to have a fun game full of ideas and variety, is not very compatible with an analytic approach


  • Currently it is hard to get funding as dyscalculia doesn’t attract much attention or money

  • In the United States, the National Institutes of Health spent $2 million studying dyscalculia between 2000 and 2011, compared with more than $107 million on dyslexia.

  • Cubans, curiously, are putting money into this, even though they’ve got very little

The Future

  • The team now has tentative plans to evaluate its software with researchers at the Cuban Neurosciences Center and the University of Pedagogical Sciences in Havana next year

  • There are also plans to place the games in other countries, including China and Singapore.

  • There are hopes that Number Sense, if it can improve dyscalculia, will help the academic debate over the cognitive basis of numeracy there are some difficulties however


Further Reading / In the News