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Dyslexia and dyscalculia are two separate learning difficulties that can cause children to have problems with literacy and writing, or with numeracy, and are relatively common in children. It is estimated that 10% of people have some degree of dyslexia. Although these are not the same condition, they both come under the umbrella of neurodiverse conditions and there are similarities. Some dyslexic people also have dyscalculia and vice versa.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a lifelong problem and although there is no ‘cure’, there are strategies that people can use to help overcome some of the difficulties they face. Having a diagnosis of dyslexia does not mean people cannot succeed, although many may not do as well as their peers at school, due to some of the problems they face with reading and writing. However, there are many very successful people who are dyslexic, such as Sir Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Jamie Oliver, and Stephen Spielberg, and many people with dyslexia have skills and abilities in other areas such as creative thinking and problem-solving.

Dyslexia often comes to light when children first begin to learn literacy or writing skills. They may confuse the order of letters in words and put letters the wrong way round such as writing “b” instead of “d” or “p” instead of “q”. However, many younger children also do this when they are first learning letters or mark-making, so identifying it can be tricky in the early years. Problems with phonics and spelling may come to light later, and as with other special educational needs, children with dyslexia may have problems following a set of instructions or may seem disorganised. 

There are a number of different types of dyslexia such as:

  • Phonological dyslexia (difficulty breaking speech into individual sounds)
  • Surface dyslexia (takes longer to process language)
  • Visual dyslexia (the brain does not receive the full picture of what is seen)
  • Primary dyslexia (an inherited condition)
  • Secondary dyslexia (occurs as a result of a brain problem in the womb)
  • Acquired or trauma dyslexia (occurs as a result of brain trauma or disease)

Some children present with delayed speech and language and this would need further help. If you suspect a child may have dyslexia, it is important to tell the parents and your SENCo so that testing can be arranged. Extra help may then be given and if this is insufficient, then it may be possible to gain a more in-depth assessment from a specialist dyslexia teacher or an educational psychologist, either through the setting/school or directly through the British Psychological Society or via a voluntary organisation, such as a local branch of the British Dyslexia Association.

These tests may examine a child’s:

  • Reading and writing abilities
  • Language development and vocabulary
  • Logical reasoning
  • Memory
  • Visual and auditory processing speeds
  • Organisational skills
  • Approaches to learning

Although quite difficult to pick up in the early years, the earlier that a diagnosis is made, and help becomes available, the more effective help is likely to be. Strategies can be implemented so the child does not miss out on learning which can include 1-1 teaching support and help with phonics, as well as technology such as the use of speech recognition software which can help children record their thoughts and answers instead of using traditional writing. Some people use coloured overlays over typed text which helps the words to stop ‘jumping around’ on the page. 

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a condition that affects a person’s ability to acquire arithmetical and mathematical skills. People with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts and lack an intuitive grasp of numbers. They may struggle to learn number bonds to 10 and 20 and the mathematical things they are able to do are often done mechanically and without much confidence. In comparison to dyslexia, dyscalculia is less prevalent, occurring in 3% – 6% of the population. Dyslexia is sometimes missed in schools, but dyscalculia is often even more overlooked. 

In the early years, a child with dyscalculia may struggle to count and/or connect a number to an object such as knowing that the number “4” can be applied to the number of wheels on a car, or the number of legs a cat has, for example. They may also struggle to recognise patterns or shapes so they may not be able to 

re-arrange blocks in order of size. In Reception class, they may display difficulty in recalling basic number bonds and understanding the four basic maths functions (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication). Dyscalculia is not the same as maths anxiety, however many children with dyscalculia can develop maths anxiety too. 

How to help

In an early years setting, it can sometimes be more difficult to recognise some of the symptoms and signs of dyslexia and dyscalculia because of the development stage of the children, and the basic nature of the maths and literacy taught at this stage. However, settings can look out for students who they feel may be falling behind their peers in simple literacy or number tasks, and alert parents to any concerns as soon as possible. There is a list of some simple signs to look out for on the BDA website, and practitioners should also be looking out for speech and language difficulties that can be a precursor for literacy problems later on. Looking out for children who have difficulty in counting or in recognising different values or patterns, is also important. 

What is vital though, is to remain patient with children and focus on the progress they are making with their effort rather than simply their attainment. Praise children for trying rather than just achieving an outcome (e.g. count to 10), and you will be developing a growth mindset in the children, rather than reinforcing a negative belief that they ‘just can’t do’ maths or reading. The biggest strategy you have at this age is to guard against imprinting children with a fixed mindset about a particular issue, which can lead to low self-esteem and cause further anxiety.

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