Why do youngsters struggle with maths?

Numeracy deficiency continues to trouble South African children. One possible contributor to this is the little-understood condition dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia.

Numeracy deficiency continues to trouble South African children. One possible contributor to this is the little-understood condition dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia.

Published Aug 5, 2023


Durban - Poor maths results in South African schools have long been a source of concern and has largely been blamed on untrained teachers.

That is often the case, but there’s another possibility that needs research and understanding: dyscalculia, the numerical version of dyslexia.

Dyscalculia is the inability to grasp mathematical concepts and interpret numbers. Not much is known about this condition in the country.

Deputy dean of academic development support at IIE Rosebank College, Dr Lindiwe Mokotjo, said there was ongoing research which delves deeper into dyscalculia globally and, to a limited extent, in South Africa.

She said it was postulated that dyscalculia could be as prevalent as dyslexia and that its impact was equally critical. Furthermore, there is a persistent global concern – and particularly so in South Africa – regarding the sub-par performance of pupils in mathematics generally.

Based on a UK study, she said that individuals with poor numeracy skills experienced several detrimental effects, including lower income levels, with its resultant impact on livelihoods, increased likelihood of illness and legal prosecution, and a greater need for educational intervention.

“It is essential that more research is undertaken to better understand the prevalence of dyscalculia in South Africa and to develop effective strategies for identifying and supporting individuals with this condition,” said Mokotjo.

UKZN Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at UKZN, Professor Poobhalan Pillay, said dyscalculia was present within 5-10% of pupils and attributed to brain damage; however this isn’t the only reason pupils struggle with mathematics.

“A high school teacher who is also head of the department of mathematics at her school recently asked me to suggest ways of teaching sequences. She is studying for a Master’s degree in mathematics education. At some point, she needed to find the decimal expansion of 3/7. She did not know how, nor was she able to write it as a percentage. Even more serious was her inability to quickly say how many sevens there are in 49. She used her fingers to count. In another case, a B.Com graduate once asked me to explain percentages. He did not know why 25% represented ¼. A Grade 3 child I know was able to rattle off the multiples of three up to 99 but was not able to tell me what 11 threes (or three times 11) was.”

Pillay said the root for these incidents lie in three categories: the high usage of calculators; young teachers being a product of the “calculator age” and depend on them; and thirdly, a lack of memorisation, which is important for a child, at an early age.

“At a very early stage in a child’s education, understanding is emphasised. This is good, but it should not stop there. Memory plays an extremely important role in numeracy. Children in India have to memorise up to 12 x19 times. It is not enough to know why 7 + 5 is 12. They should know the value of 7 + 5 without further thought,” said Pillay.

He said mental arithmetic, or the ability to answer sums quickly, used to be important and was a method of assessment in the later curriculum.

He suggested that calculators should only be used from grade 6 and mental arithmetic be re-introduced. He also said senior teachers should be encouraged to teach younger teachers about bonds and how to convert numbers into decimals and percentages without calculator use. By ensuring this, he said, it would help with mathematical performance by providing a solid foundation and could curb dyscalculia.

The Independent on Saturday