+ Math Disability: Problem Linking Quantities to Numbers

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From Science Daily, October 24,  a report that children who start elementary school with difficulty associating small exact quantities of items with the printed numerals that represent those quantities are more likely to develop a math-related learning disability.

A study supported by the National Institutes of Health suggests that the children in the study who appeared to have difficulty grasping the fundamental concept of exact numerical quantities — that the printed number 3 represents three dots on a page, for example — went on later to be diagnosed with math learning disability by fifth grade.

There were other factors correlated with a math learning disability as well. 

These children had difficulty recalling answers to single-digit addition problems.   They were distractible in class.  And they had difficulty understanding that more complex math problems can be broken down into smaller problems.

While the math learning disabled children did make limited progress in subsequent grades, by fifth grade they had not caught up to their typically achieving peers in the ability to recall number facts, or in their ease of adding sets of dots and numerals together. 

Math disabled students did catch up in other areas, researchers noted, such as the use of counting to solve problems.

The researchers do not know whether the factors they identified caused the children’s math learning disability or whether they were linked to other unidentified factors: the study was not designed to prove cause and effect.

Says Kathy Mann Koepke, PhD, of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National  Insititute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which funded the study

The search for factors underlying difficulty learning mathematics is extremely important.  Once we identify such factors, the hope is that we can modify them through appropriate teaching methods to help people who have difficulty learning and using math.

Math skills are important for higher education and for entry into many higher paying technical fields.  Math skills have many health implications.  For example, many American adults lack even the basic math skills necessary to estimate the appropriate number of calories in their diets or to calculate the time intervals at which to take their medicine.

Dr. Mann Koepke directs the NICHD’s Mathematics and Science Cognition and Learning Development and Disorders program.

The study was conducted by Mary K Hoard, PhD, Laura Nugent, Drew H Bailey and David C Geary, PhD, all of the University of Missouri, Columbia.  Their findings appear in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Dr. Geary says

Our findings suggest that children who generally struggle with math — the low achievers — may have a poor sense of numbers, but they can narrow the achievement gap in part because most of them can memorize new math facts and, thus, learn some aspects of math as quickly as their typically achieving peers.

He adds that, in contrast to the simply low achievers, students with a math learning disability not only have a poor concept of numbers, but also have difficulty memorizing math facts.

Mann Koepke feels that clarifying the factors that contribute to a math learning disability may lead to the development of teaching methods that help students overcome difficulties with number concepts and skills.  It’s important to identify potential difficulties early, when chances for successfully overcoming them are greatest.


Other NICHD-funded investigators have also identified basic risk factors for math learning disability.

These researchers have shown that math skills are linked to the “approximate number system,” a person’s intuitive ability to estimate quantities or identify the approximate number in a set.

One study of grade school children showed that this ability is impaired in children with a math learning disability.

A related study showed that difficulty with estimating such quantities is apparent in children as young as 3, and is correlated with later poor math performance in school.  Researchers do not know if the ability to distinguish between small, exact quantities is related to the approximate number system.

For the complete story in Science Daily, visit     http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024165553.htm, which is my source.

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