Throughout her school years, Eva felt “stupid” because she always failed her maths exam while many of her friends grasped the dreaded subject.

A year ago Eva, who is now 18, found out that she has dyscalculia.

“I was relieved when I was diagnosed. They did several tests and told me I had dyscalculia. At least, now I know why I struggle so much with maths and anything to do with numbers, such as calculating change and even reading the time.

“I wish someone had noticed sooner,” she says, adding that her diagnosis was possible thanks to the head of her sixth form whose child also had dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is a term used to describe a specific learning difficulty that affects an individual’s ability to perceive quantities which results in challenges to understand, learn and perform mathematical and number-based operations. 

Not all difficulties in maths are caused by dyscalculia, which stands at the far end of the Mathematics Learning Difficulties (MLD) spectrum.

But researcher Esmeralda Zerafa is calling for action to be taken to assess children at an early age to ensure they get the necessary support.

“Children with Maths Learning Difficulties and dyscalculia can make great progress if they are assessed early on and are given the right intervention to help them close off any gaps in their learning,” Zerafa, head designate of Junior Years at Chiswick House School, said.

“Locally, to date, there is no state funded assessment for dyscalculia, unlike for dyslexia, for example, and no intervention programme is provided either.

“This means that, many times, unless private tuition is sought, children with MLD or dyscalculia end up struggling with mathematics their entire lives. This not only leads to reduced quality of life but also to reduced life chances.”

Her concerns are legitimate. Although there are no statistics about the incidence of MLD and dyscalculia in Malta, 25 per cent of the population in the UK is known to have Maths Learning Difficulties.

Data from last year showed that 18 per cent of students taking the maths SEC exam failed.

SEC stands for Secondary Education Certificate examinations, commonly referred to as ‘O’ levels. Students who do not obtain a grade between 1 and 7 get a failing ‘U’ grade, meaning their result is “unclassified”.

2021 results similar to 2019: 17% sitting for maths failed

The 2021 results were similar to those in 2019, when 17 per cent of those sitting for maths received a failing ‘U’ grade.

Through her research Zerafa has proven that support at an early age can yield positive results. 

As part of her PhD in maths learning difficulties and dyscalculia, carried out at the University of Malta and funded through the Malta Government Scholarship Scheme, Zerafa did six case studies on Grade 5 boys (aged between nine and 10) attending a Church school.

She started by finding norms for mathematical assessment tools and then administered these to some 50 students to identify six children struggling with mathematics learning.

Once the participants were identified they sat for a numeracy assessment. They were then given a total of 20 intervention sessions each, spread over six months. The sessions were tailormade to their specific needs and followed on from interviews with their parents and teachers.

It emerged that most of the boys suffered from maths anxiety, they feared committing mistakes and got mentally blocked when it came to maths

It emerged that most of the boys suffered from maths anxiety, they feared committing mistakes and got mentally blocked when it came to maths.

Throughout the six months, Zerafa made use of a pedagogical model she created that included a range of support strategies.

These included the use of multisensorial strategies (such as using concrete items to represent numbers), the use of mathematical tools such as number tracks, the educator acting as facilitator of learning rather than imparting knowledge, giving the pupils the opportunity to explain lessons back to the educator using the right maths language and so on. 

Once the six months were over, the students were reassessed.

The findings showed that the intervention programme was beneficial in supporting the learners to internalise the targeted numeracy components and in increasing confidence levels.

As for Eva, she can relate.

“Maths used to make me very anxious.

“When I failed, teachers would boil it down to me not studying enough. I was labelled ‘stupid’. Had a teacher noticed earlier, things could have been different,” she says, adding she did not wish to reveal her real identity since dyscalculia was something she was still dealing with.

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