Persistent difficulties in maths: Does labelling help?

    Published: 16 November 2018

    Why do some pupils find maths harder than others and does having an SEND label to classify the difficulty help? This blog discusses the possible reasons why pupils find maths hard, looking at some of the most recent research into maths learning difficulties and making suggestions about possible ways to help.

    If you asked a small group of people, “Are you good at maths?” I would almost guarantee that at least one, but most likely more of the group, would say no.

    We live in a culture where it feels socially acceptable to be bad at maths. This is worrying as we know that it is high attainment in maths that can open the door to most of the highest paid jobs, more so than attainment in English. Therefore it is essential that pupils leave school with good maths skills. Sadly, we also know that pupils who don’t meet expectations at the start of their schooling will most likely follow that trend all the way through school, with the gaps getting bigger and bigger until they feel like the Grand Canyon to both to the pupil and the teacher trying to fill them.

    So why does maths seem harder to grasp for some people than others?

    Previously, it was thought that some people had mathematical brains and others didn’t, making some people naturally better at maths. We now know that this is not the case. However, some people do find maths hard and the reasons why this is, is complex. Current research takes into account of a variety of reasons including: cognitive function (how the brain works), links to other specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia, ASD, ADHD, speech and language difficulties), deprivation factors and anxiety disorders (such as maths anxiety). All of these can and do impact on the learning of maths.

    Persistent difficulties with maths is sometimes referred to as specific maths learning difficulties or dyscalculia. At times it is also known as the ‘dyslexia of maths’. The obstacle with assessing dyscalculia is that there is currently no agreed definition so it is very hard to pin point whether a pupil has it or not. Back in 2001 the DfES defined dyscalculia as “A condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills” (pg. 2) but a current search on for dyscalculia returns no results when looking within the Department for Education. The American Psychiatric Association (2013) definition of dyscalculia as found on, 2017 lists three main impairments, difficulties in:

    • learning basic arithmetic facts
    • processing numerical magnitude
    • performing accurate and fluent calculations

    But the definition goes on to highlight that attainment must be below age-related expectations and not caused by weak teaching. Professionals qualified to assess dyscalculia use these definitions to make their judgements, but the data they use is mostly based on the assessments they complete. Some information from parents, teachers and other professionals such as Educational Physiologists are taken into account but not all the complex factors listed above.

    However, recent research into maths learning difficulties by Morsanyi et al., 2018 carried out in Northern Ireland at Queen’s University Belfast, changed the criteria for recognising whether a pupil has a specific maths learning disorder/dyscalculia or not. In their study, they included pupils who didn’t have significant differences between their maths ability score and their IQ scores – as a guide, their maths standardised score needed to be at least 22 standard score points less than their IQ standardised score to be classed as dyscalculic. This increased the percentage of pupils at primary age with dyscalculia to 6%. In previous studies the number of people thought to have dyscalculia varies dramatically between 1% and 13%. But the number of people with a formal diagnosis is closer to the lower end due to no single definition and the discrepancy between maths and IQ scores. Whether IQ can be measured is a debate for another occasion!

    When discussing their findings Morsanvi et al., 2018 they noticed that approximately 80% of the pupils identified with dyscalculia also had other SEND needs, over 55% were entitled to free school meals, school attendance was generally poorer and attainment in English was also below expected levels. In short our pupils we know are vulnerable learners.

    Does the diagnosis of a specific maths learning difficulty (dyscalculia) actually help?

    In some ways – yes - because it would give them a defined SEND need, as stated in the SEND code of practice, (Department for education and department of health, 2015), Cognition and Learning: Specific learning difficulties (SpLD), affect one or more specific aspects of learning. This encompasses a range of conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. (pg.98) So the diagnosis should provide access to SEND support and specialism, but the code of practice also puts the responsibility and accountability of these pupils with the class teacher, and says ‘High quality teaching, differentiated for individual pupils, is the first step in responding to pupils who have or may have SEN. Additional intervention and support cannot compensate for a lack of good quality teaching.’ (pg.99)

    What does good teaching and learning look like for these pupils?

    As Siobhan King said in her recent blog, ‘More than growth mindset’ they may need the learning be shown a different way, or the right practice to build security in learning, or provide more time to process learning. In his blog, Weaker Pupils or the Wrong Maths, Mark McCourt talks about how children we perceive as weaker are often taught the wrong maths because they haven't yet built up the necessary learning to be successful. We completely agree. These children need success. As a number of studies show, anxiety is much more common in pupils who find maths hard, compared with, for example, pupils who find reading hard, so being successful is vitally important. We need to ensure that we teach children what they need and not necessarily what our coverage says we are due to teach in this week of this term. 

    Pupils with dyscalculia will be working below age related expectations but in the study by Morsanvi et al., 2018 they noticed that the number of pupils with maths learning difficulties (dyscalculia) decreased over time, the opposite to what I might have expected, so this suggests that difficulties can be addressed, they state that ‘environmental factors might play a significant role in the development and persistence of maths difficulties.’ (page 21) I interpret this as pupils’ backgrounds and additional needs impact on their maths learning but if this is served up in an accessible way progress can be made. For pupils with dyscalculia gaps in learning are going to be evident so careful intervening will be needed. How you intervene will be completely dependent on the pupil’s need. Initially, the learning in the classroom needs to be adapted this could be by: offering support through scaffolding learning so that they are supported and then this can be removed over time so that they can become independent; carefully chosen resources that help expose the concepts behind the process, for example regrouping in addition using base-10; speaking frames to support thinking and help with reasoning.

    It might be an additional intervention. This could be done before new learning is introduced – pre-teaching - to recap previous learning and check understanding of key vocabulary or models that are to be used. It could also be part of the lesson they are going to see but having the input twice will allow time to process the learning and it may also reduce anxiety so make the learning more accessible.

    If pupils have a specific gaps that need to be filled, what the specific gap is needs careful assessment; the intervention should be carefully planned to meet the individual’s needs; delivered by well trained staff; connections need to be made to previous and upcoming learning and most importantly they need to build in success! It is essential that pupils don’t miss other learning that they enjoy or feel empowered by and if, as according to the research they are likely to be, they are having other interventions for other areas of learning they find challenging, ensure that ‘intervention fatigue’ doesn’t set in. Chapter 7 of the EEF’s Improving Mathematics in KS2 and 3 guidance provides some interesting guidance about intervening effectively.

    As Morsanvi et al., 2018 concludes ‘Even though we recommend that all pupils with maths difficulties receive interventions, it is possible that pupils with different cognitive profiles would benefit from different types of interventions.’ This would imply that off the shelf interventions won’t work for the majority of pupils with dyscalculia. The HfL maths team are currently exploring the use of diagnostic assessments both at whole class level and for individuals that help pin point specific learning needs. From the results of the diagnostic assessments guidance is provided. For the whole class diagnostic assessment links to upcoming learning sequences in the HfL ESSENTIALmaths planning are identified and learning sequences from previous year groups are highlighted, so that if gaps need to be filled the correct learning can be taught first. For the individual diagnostic assessment, errors made enable the assessor to identify very specific gaps and explicit teaching guidance is provided, so a short focused intervention can be delivered hopefully filling the gap. This is currently in trial so we will share our findings once the trail is completed.

    In conclusion   

    Whether a pupil gets the label dyscalculia is irrelevant. What is essential for those pupils that find maths hard is to ensure that maths learning is delivered in a way that is accessible and when misconceptions, gaps or tricky bits arise how to intervene effectively is identified. Keeping expectations high and enabling those pupils to feel success are also key factors in ensure that the canyons that seem impassable don’t get too big in the first place.  


    Anon, (2018). Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 & 3. [online] Available at: (2017). Dyscalculia | British Dyslexia Association. [online] Available at:

    DfES (2001) Guidance to support pupils with dyslexia and dyscalculia. London: Department for Education and Skills.

    Department for education and department of health (2015). Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Aug. 2017].

    McCourt, M; 2108. Weaker Pupils or the Wrong Maths. 2nd November 2018. [Online]. Available from  [Accessed 12th Nov. 2018]

    Morsanyi, K., van Bers, B., McCormack, T. and McGourty, J. (2018). The prevalence of specific learning disorder in mathematics and comorbidity with other developmental disorders in primary school-age pupils. British Journal of Psychology, 109(4), pp.917-940.

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