Dyscalculia – Part I:
What is Dyscalculia?

What do you call when a child struggles only with math but not with other academic subjects?

By Seonghae Jeon, M.P.A.

What do you call when a child struggles only with math but not with other academic subjects? The term, dyscalculia, is used to describe a learning disability or structural disorder of mathematical abilities. It has its origin in a genetic or congenital disorder of those parts of brain that are the direct anatomic-physiological substrate of the maturation of the mathematical abilities adequate to age, without a simultaneous disorder of general mental functions. 

We must bear in mind, though, a child who is given inadequate instruction which has led him not being able to demonstrate his potential abilities is called to have pseudo-dyscalculia; it is a mere deficit in math instruction, not a disorder. 


According to <Dyscalculia: From Science to Education>, an infant is born with a “Starter Kit” in his brain and senses which allows him to make sense of the world; some features of the world are attended to and other ignored for the moment. 

For the infant, seeing the world numerically is very much like seeing it in color; the number of objects he sees is a primary visual property of the world. In other words, noticing that some things in the visual scene are objects is a precondition for enumerating them. 

The process of enumeration involves two separate but interrelated subsystems: subitizing and counting. Identifying a number immediately without counting the objects is called subitizing and typical adults subitize the number of dots up to 4 dots; after 4 dots, they begin to count. 

Then how does subitizing work? Assuming that an infant is indeed born with a “Starter Kit”, the ability to subitize objects and find its numerosity is ingrained in his brain from birth.  

Number Sense, also known as Number Module, refers to the innate ability in one of the tools in the “Starter Kit” for learning about numbers and arithmetic. Learners enter the world with mental structures and principles that enable them to identify features of the world that are relevant to the domain – which governs the perception of and reasoning about objects, natural numbers, causality, language, and sociality – and exclude those that are irrelevant. 

Several studies suggest that individuals are born with Number Module whose capacity varies by person and that a child’s Number Sense is closely associated with his performance in math classes and standardized tests. Some studies also suggest if a child scored low on a test that was made to measure his Number Module, then he would continue to score low on the test built to measure adults’ Number Module.   


In summary, dyscalculia can be defined as a deficit in the Number Module which every individual is born with and one may argue that children with dyscalculia have a deficit in the key tool of the “Starter Kit”. If this is true, then what could be its cause?  


Butterworth, B., (2018). What is dyscalculia? It’s not just being bad at maths. Science of Dyscalculia. 1st ed. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315538112

Butterworth, B., (2018). Number sense: our intuitive understanding of numbers. Science of Dyscalculia. 1st ed. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315538112&nbsp;