Case StudyDyscalculia

Supporting Children with Mathematics Learning Difficulties

In this blog post, I will summarise the research by Dr. Ann Dowker, St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford; Esmeralda Zerafa, PhD Student, University of Malta into Supporting Children with Mathematics Learning Difficulties: An Intervention Programme with primary school children (2017)

Outline to the research:

Over the course of eight weeks, the researchers wanted to discover:

  1. Do the participants show any improvement in the Dynamo Assessment after 8 weeks of following Dynamo Intervention?
  2. If subjects have improved, what has contributed to this improvement?  
  3. Which components have improved and therefore are most malleable? 
  4. Is there a difference between the progress made in the components intervened upon and in those not intervened upon?

Participant Selection:

The participants were selected with the help of the classroom teachers. All the participants were identified as struggling with maths. The sample size selected was composed of 10 participants. 5 were selected as the intervention group. The other 5 were the control group. All participants were in Grade 3 (7 to 8 years old). They all attended the same Church school for boys in Malta.

Pre-Assessment Date Collection Process:

Pre-assessments were administered individually using Dynamo Assessment with all of the 10 participants and respective qualitative data collected, and additional observations were also gathered.

Fidelity of Intervention:

The 5 pupils in the intervention group underwent an 8-week Dynamo Maths intervention programme

Sessions were held for 15 minutes everyday (sometimes the children missed a lesson due to school activities – this occurred about 7 times across the weeks) using the blended Dynamo Intervention of: 

  1. Lesson Plans that provided opportunities to engage through targeted activities identified from the assessment. It gave students a voice to think aloud, verbalise thought processes use language independently.
  2. Online activities – provided models and images with supported simulation and feedback.
  3. Worksheets – provided insight into written errors.

This systematic and explicit approach provided multiple contexts for engagement and learning and further opportunities to develop cognitive flexibility to switch and adjust between tasks.

Post-assessment:

Post-assessment was administered using Dynamo Assessment with both groups of children on a one-to-one basis, and observations were noted.

Validity and reliability:

All the data was collected by one of the researchers, thus reducing variables and increasing validity and reliability.

What is Dynamo Assessment?

Dynamo Assessment is constructed around the researched and evidence-based NumberSeseMMR™ (Meaning, Magnitude and Relationship) and assessed against 15 essential maths components; direction and spatial orientation, visual discrimination and approximation, number as symbols – single digit, counting,  double digits, comparison, estimation, ordering numbers, number sequencing, number facts, mental strategies, number bonds, problem-solving, time and multiplication. The assessment outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the learners in each of the 15 components and outlines which Modules from the Dynamo Maths Programme would be most helpful.  It also highlights whether the difficulties are related to dyscalculia symptoms or maths developmental delays.

What did the assessment provide?

Dynamo Maths provided a report detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each of the 15 strands, as well as, highlighting whether the difficulties encountered were related to dyscalculia symptoms or maths developmental delays.

The Intervention Phase:

Based on the insights gained from the pre-assessment, the students started the Dynamo Maths intervention programme on five pupils currently assigned to an intervention group. This targeted program ran over eight weeks, with 15-minute daily sessions.

The Post-Intervention Phase:

Post-intervention, the participants revisited the Dynamo Assessment for a one-on-one assessment with the intervention and control groups. Assessing all 10 individuals.

Findings Post-Assessment?

The Dynamo Profilers of the children who had undergone intervention showed improvement in most components, while the control group made less progress.

Observations:

  1. For most of the intervention group the Dynamo Maths programme had a positive impact on the Dyscalculia Symptoms highlighted by the Profiler, illustrating that these symptoms are malleable and can be positively improved if specific intervention is provided to target each of them.  Once the Dyscalculia Symptoms were strengthened, these seemed to have a positive effect on other components including multiplication, problem solving and number bonds. 
  1. The Intervention Group’s pre- and post-assessment revealed that the learners progressed in most components, and little regression was recorded.  
  1. When analysing the Control Group, one observes that regression is more common. Not only was progress thus not recorded, but the learners also seemed to lose some of their abilities—possibly due to the lack of use of them.
  1. The intervention did not seem to affect the attitudes towards mathematics identified by each of the students while they were assessed using the Dynamo Profiler. 
  1. Children who for example said they ‘enjoyed maths’ or ‘found maths hard’ at the beginning of the intervention programme maintained the same attitude. This was similar to the Control Group.  This may be because the intervention programme was rather short and may indicate that for attitudes to change the intervention needs to be carried out over a longer time span.  
  1. Componential approaches to intervention in mathematics may work best when they take into account individual children’s specific strengths and weaknesses in arithmetic and do not assume that ‘one size fits all’
  2. Attitudes are part of the affective domain. The results of this study suggest that cognitive abilities may indeed be more easily malleable than attitudes and beliefs.

Findings Correlate to the Literature:

There is nothing like mathematical ability but it is best to speak about mathematical abilities (Dowker, 2005). The Profilers illustrate how all the learners identified as struggling with mathematics had in fact different profiles of strengths and weaknesses.  Mathematics has a componential nature and specifically targeting one component at a time can not only scaffold the progression in the targeted components but also in a number of other components (Dowker & Sigley, 2010; Holmes & Dowker, 2013).  Specifically identifying the gaps in the pupils’ learning is fundamental to any effective intervention programme for mathematics.

Why might the intervention have been effective?

The intervention programme embraces scaffolding, and all lesson plans, worksheets and online activities are scaffolded in their content and the ways in which they are presented.  A Multisensory Approach to the learning of mathematics is promoted in all the lesson plans. The lessons are built around giving the learner the image and context as well as the symbols (Haylock and Cockburn, 2013).  Its digital activities are very attractive for the learners. The intervention, not only praises the students for the successful completion of a task but also illustrates why an answer is wrong when this is the case.  Learners can follow up on what they have done at school, and also at home.  The pupil can repeat the same online activity as many times as needed or wanted. The progress of the child in all the activities is consistently monitored.

Conclusions:

Children with mathematics learning difficulties normally exhibit difficulties with specific components of mathematics and not all components;  If specific intervention is provided to target different components, progress is highly likely;  Making a difference in the cognitive abilities of the learners may be less problematic than doing this within the affective domain;  Scaffolding and a Multisensory Approach to the teaching of mathematics may be fundamental for appropriate intervention for mathematics learning difficulties;  Dynamo Maths illustrate how technology can be used as a great tool to support children with mathematics learning difficulties since it can be accurate and specific in its assessment and also provide fruitful and enjoyable learning experiences to these learners who can in turn make much desired progress.


I am Karima Esmail, Co-founder of Dynamo Maths, an award-winning, research and evidence-based inclusive programme proven to support students with dyscalculia and those not meeting age-related expectations.

I have 15 years of experience as a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. More recently, I undertook research at University College London, which inspired the creation of Puffin Maths for the deaf and hard of hearing, which now provides access to the National Curriculum using British Sign Language (BSL). Puffin Maths was ‘Highly Commended’ at BETT 2022.

I have also co-authored Dynamo Post 14 Number Sense Profiler and Dyscalculia Self Perception Indicators Questionnaire.