When children who struggle with learning are the topic of conversation, the spotlight is most often turned to reading. And with good reason. Trouble with reading is by far the most prevalent characteristic of specific learning disabilities (LD). That said, math is not far behind, and it is not unusual for individuals with LD to have trouble in both of these areas of learning and performance.
Just like reading skills are critical for succeeding in school and in life, there has been increased recognition during the past few years of the importance of acquiring basic math skills that set the stage for more advanced math learning required for higher education and employment.
There is no question that the failure to develop competencies in math during the school years can seriously handicap both daily living and vocational prospects for young people and adults alike. In today's world, mathematical knowledge, math reasoning, and math problem-solving skills are no less important than reading ability.
Dyscalculia is the general term used to describe a specific learning disability in mathematics. Individuals with dyscalculia have significant problems with numbers: learning about them and understanding how they work. Like other types of LD, the term dyscalculia does not capture the specific kinds of struggle experienced in such areas as math calculations, telling time, left/right orientation, understanding rules in games, and much more.
What We Know: Early Math Skills Predict Future Academic Achievement
There is wide-spread misunderstanding of the importance of math in everyday life and a lack of appreciation of how important math learning is for young children. Researchers have begun to look at kindergarten math skills as effective predictors of future academic achievement. Children's early math knowledge is said to be important because it fosters future abilities not only in math but also in reading. In one study, pre-math skills at kindergarten entry are said to predict math achievement as much as reading achievement by grade three.
Early math skills are often not only often strong predictors of later math achievement; they can be predictive of later reading achievement as well as the acquisition of early reading skills. These and other patterns were similar for boys and girls and for children from both upper-middle -class and poor families.
What We Know: A Lack of Knowledge about Learning Disabilities in Math
Many teachers (and parents), by their own admission, lack a conceptual understanding of math and are therefore not well prepared to teach math effectively or convey an appreciation of math to their students. Many even admit to disliking or being anxious about math, a perception easily conveyed to students.
In contrast to dyslexia, researchers have not yet identified the primary cognitive deficits that underlie math learning disabilities (i.e., dyscalculia). Difficulties in math appear not to be linked to a specific disability, but rather, may be the result of weaknesses in other related cognitive skill areas such as language, attention, memory, and skills related to perceiving and imagining space.
What We Know: The Importance of Monitoring Progress
There is good evidence that early prediction or identification of math difficulties, coupled with well-targeted research-based interventions, can diminish or prevent struggle with math learning for many children.
Children with a learning disability in math are likely to show persistent difficulties with learning over time, making it all the more important to gather reliable data about student progress beginning as early as possible in the child's school career.
However, math learning does not follow a predictable, step-by-step course and this can make the tracking of progress more challenging. Interestingly, seemingly more advanced skills and concepts are possible to learn before mastering more basic numerical operations.
For more information about math learning:
- The National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP), commissioned by the US Department of Education, has examined and summarized the scientific evidence related to the teaching and learning of mathematics, with a specific focus on preparation for and success in learning algebra. They’ve issued two reports containing policy recommendations on how to improve mathematics achievement for all students.
- Components of Effective Math Instruction points to key abilities involved in learning math that need to be addressed in instruction, with the importance of different abilities shifting across the elementary and secondary grades.