Dyscalculia And Word Problems: How to manage?

Let’s imagine that Joey has 15 oranges. He wants to save 3 of them for his grandparents and share the remaining equally with his brother and sister. How many oranges does Joey’s sister get?

If you were able to follow this problem and make the deductions and divisions required to arrive at the answer, you can easily solve word problems.

But that might not be the case with everyone. Not everyone is comfortable with the concept of numbers and is well versed in understanding what functions and calculations are required based on the explanations given indirectly in verbal format. 

And, even if you have followed the word problem, understood what it means, and know where you need to do subtraction and division, you could still have difficulty with performing those calculations.

Such is the scenario when it comes to some people with dyscalculia. In this blog, we will understand why some people with dyscalculia might have trouble solving word problems and look at various strategies they can employ to crack them.

Word Problems: A tough nut to crack for people with dyscalculia?

Word problems are questions in the form of hypothetical scenarios which require performing one or several mathematical calculations and manipulations to reach the solution. 

For instance, if Alice has 20 apples but half of them are rotten. How many apples will each of her 5 sisters get if she divides the good ones equally amongst them? Or, if the cost of one pen bought by Jenny is 1 dollar, how many dollars will it take for her to buy a pack of 10 pens?

Solving problems like these requires taking several steps. First, you need to understand the situation being portrayed and what value you are looking for. For example, in Jenny’s case, you need to remember the cost of one pen and that your goal is to find the value of a pack of 10 pens.

Next, you’ll have to understand what functions, manipulations, or calculations need to be performed to come to the desired value and in what order. So, in Alice’s case, you’ll need to do both subtraction and division. First, you’ll need to subtract the 10 rotten apples from the total, that is 20 apples. Then, you’ll need to equally divide the good apples among the 5 sisters.

The final step involves actually performing the functions and calculations and finding the desired answer. Knowing when and where you need to add, subtract, divide or multiply is not enough. You also need to know how to perform these functions. Only then will you be able to reach the answer that all of Alice’s sisters will get 2 apples each and that it would cost Jenny 10 dollars to buy a pack of 10 pens.

The one thing that is clear from all these steps is that to solve word problems, a sound knowledge of mathematical concepts is required.

Since individuals with dyscalculia primarily have trouble processing any and all kinds of numerical knowledge, these word problems could pose a challenge for them. They could get stuck at any one of the steps, depending on what particular problems manifest in their learning process due to dyscalculia.

Why people with dyscalculia might face problems with word problems?

The primary symptoms of dyscalculia include having difficulties in reading and/or writing numbers, performing calculations, and other basic arithmetic functions. But, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5, the handbook for various psychological concerns, specifies that additional difficulties in the accuracy of verbal or mathematical reasoning can arise because of dyscalculia[1].

word problem

Studies have shown that dyscalculia can impact both basic and complex number processing as well as calculation abilities. From counting the number of objects present in front of you to listening to a number and converting it into roman numerals while writing several tasks involving numerical knowledge can pose a challenge.

These challenges can show up in daily life situations as well, where the individual might have difficulty reading clocks, counting money, finding directions, remembering phone numbers, etc. And they show up in the classroom as not being able to remember math facts and procedures, having difficulty in understanding number-related concepts, and having issues with engaging in mental maths[2].

The experience of dyscalculia is different for every individual, and the related issues they face also differ. Some people could face problems with one or two small things, while others could find a myriad of challenges. 

All of the learning differences and difficulties that accompany dyscalculia can, in one way or another, lead to individuals finding word problems particularly difficult to solve.

Strategies to tackle the world of word problems

Various techniques can be employed to help individuals with dyscalculia with word problems:

1. Understand where the problem lies

As we have already understood, not every individual with dyscalculia has the same difficulties. Since the experience varies, so do the concepts that different individuals have trouble with. Some people could find it hard to remember procedures, and others might feel it is tough to do calculations.

In the case of word problems, it would be useful to understand where or with what step exactly the individual is encountering a block in order to help overcome it.

2. Personalized Lesson Plan

Once the specific difficulty of encountering an individual with dyscalculia is understood, a specific lesson plan can be tailored to meet the needs of the individual.

Alternate learning techniques like multisensory learning and active learning have been found to be quite helpful in building on the individual’s strengths to help counter their weaknesses.

3. Figure it out 

Another alternative to textbook or lecture teaching methods could be to visually represent the problem. Using a diagram or figure to understand and then solve the problem could help individuals who have trouble with doing mental maths.

Additionally, individuals could also benefit from relating the problem to a story or real-life instance so that they can recall the steps they took to solve the problem.

4. Take it one step at a time 

When a task seems too daunting, it could be helpful to break it down into pieces and take it one piece at a time. The steps to solving a word problem could be further divided into smaller sub-steps.

The focus of the individual can be shifted from having to solve the entire problem in one go to just understanding and solving one sub-step at a time. After sufficient practice and mastery over steps, they can all be brought together to solve the entire problem.

5. Work on strengthening language skills

Last but not the least, it is imperative to make sure that trouble with solving word problems is not arising because of a gap in language skills.

Special focus should also be paid to strengthening the individual’s vocabulary and comprehension skills so that they can accurately understand what the question is. 

Is it manageable?

While dyscalculia can affect the number sense and many mathematical concepts like fractions, additions, etc., individuals with dyscalculia can learn to solve word problems and become quite proficient at it. While it might require some extra effort, time and practice, all learning differences can be overcome using different tools and techniques.

If they get the required support and accommodations and help to identify what exactly it is that they struggle with, get personalized lessons aimed at tackling those very issues, take advantage of alternative methods of learning, break the problem into steps and sub-steps and also work on their language skills, along with their arithmetic skills, people with dyscalculia can get better, or even great at solving word problems.


Word problems present a numerical problem in the form of a hypothetical scenario, Individuals with dyscalculia, who have problems with arithmetic questions, could find these types of questions even more puzzling. But, these learning differences can be easily overcome with some practice, consistency, and by leveraging the help and support of people around them and alternative learning techniques. At the same time, being bad at math should not be confused with having dyscalculia; one should carefully look at the signs and symptoms and get checked by a professional or expert before diving into a conclusion. 


  1. American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5 Task Force. (2013). (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  2. Kißler, C., Schwenk, C., & Kuhn, J. (2021). Two Dyscalculia Subtypes With Similar, Low Comorbidity Profiles: A Mixture Model Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.589506

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