This is a question I get asked fairly regularly by worried parents of kids, usually in Year 2 or 3. And I start by checking language skills.
Language learning impairments are common, but often missed in pre-schoolers and kindergarten kids.
About 7% of kindergarten kids have clinically significant difficulties learning and/or using their first (or only) language despite having normal hearing, intelligence, and behavioural development (Toblin et al., 1997). These kids have a “language learning impairment” or LLI*. LLI can be hard for parents to spot and it is often not picked up until after kids start school; and sometimes not for several years (if at all).
Often, kids with LLI cope with kindergarten by employing lots of clever strategies and relying on visual supports. As the “language load” increases and the pictures are faded out in later years of school, however, many of these kids struggle academically. And not just in speaking, reading and writing.
We use language to teach and assess all subjects – not just English
Children with LLI are at risk for later academic difficulties (e.g. Dockrell et al., 2011). For young school-age kids with LLI, speech pathologists tend to focus on helping kids with pure language skills like understanding instructions, speaking in sentences, reading fluently and spelling words correctly. But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests LLI affects maths skills, too, especially as the picture-based worksheets are replaced with written maths problems.
Why would a language impairment cause maths problems?
We’ve known for over 20 years that children with LLI lag behind peers on basic number skills (e.g. Cowan et al., 1995). But consider these maths questions:
At 9.02am, Train A, travelling 70 kilometres per hour (kph), leaves West Ryde heading towards Hornsby, 17.5 kms away. At the same time Train B, travelling 60 kph, leaves Hornsby heading for West Ryde. When do the two trains meet? How far from each suburb do they meet?
If John is older than Mary, and Mary is older than Frank, who is the youngest?
Look at these numbers: 15, 21, 7, 12. Which number is the greatest? Which is the second lowest number? Is 12 > 15? Is 15 < 21? What’s the sum of the numbers? What’s 15/21 to the nearest whole number? What’s 7/12, expressed as a percentage to two decimal places?
Before you multiply the answer by 3, divide 9 by 3, and then multiple it by 7.
10 + (7/6) x 4 = ?
There are a few reasons kids with LLI may struggle with questions like these more than their peers:
- Poor language skills and “language-heavy” questions. Although there are hands-on and non-verbal elements to maths, there is also a lot of language involved:
- To succeed, children must learn a vocabulary of maths words and concepts. But children with LLI are, generally speaking, poor word learners (e.g. Rice et al., 1994), which means they can fall behind. Some kids may simply lack a well-developed vocabulary of maths terms (e.g. not knowing what “divide” means).
- Some children may have problems retrieving number names (e.g. Hall & Segarra, 2007).
- Many children with LLI have difficulties understanding complex language (e.g. sentences with subordinating conjunctions in them like “because”, “although”, “however”, and “otherwise”). Others may not be able to process complex syntax (e.g. passive sentence forms like “The car was pulled by the truck.”).
- Children with LLI may have problems with tasks that require verbal counting or naming skills requiring the child to remember number names or facts (e.g. Arvedson, 2002).
- Other children may not have a good understanding of language concepts used to explain relationships of time (e.g. “before”, “after”, “while”, “until”), space (e.g. “above”, “below”, “between”, “through”), quantity (“more/less”, “empty/full”), sequencing (e.g. “first, next and last”), inclusion and exclusion (e.g. “neither/nor”, “all/except”) or conditions (e.g. “if”, “unless”).
- Some kids do not have well-developed semantic features attached to key words and concepts. For example, they may know that a square is a shape, but not recall it has 4 equal-length sides. This may make it hard for the child to distinguish a square from a triangle or rectangle.
- Some kids miss clues in maths questions because they do not understand word form markers (e.g. that “horses” means more than one horse, “climbed” means it happened previously, or “taller” means compared to something less tall).
- Some kids simply have problems reading and comprehending written maths problems.
- Symbol processing problems: Some children with LLI may have problems processing the symbols used in maths questions (e.g. %, <, >, +, =, etc.). Language itself is a collection of symbols. For example, the word “dog” is a symbol that refers to the animal – the word is not the animal itself. Children who have problems learning language symbols might also struggle with maths symbols (e.g. Pierce & Fontaine, 2009).
- Poor working memory skills: Some low-level evidence suggests that for some children with LLI, problems with counting and number names, may be related to poor working memory. For example, it appears visuospatial working memory plays a critical role in mathematics performance, e.g. when we hold information in the mind while solving mental calculations (e.g. Kyttala et al., 2010). For more on working memory issues and its complex relationship with LLI, see here.
- Not enough practice: Lots of good instruction and practice increases maths performance (e.g. Cowan et al., 2005).
In a 2014 study, Dr Mary Alt and colleagues looked (among other things) at the relationship between language and maths skills by studying 61 Year 2 children with and without LLI.** They found that children with LLI demonstrated significantly lower performance on a wide range of maths tasks requiring different degrees of language and symbol processing, and different demands on working memory. They suggested the results might be attributable to any of the first three theories mentioned above, i.e. that compared to typically developing kids, children with LLI have more difficulties:
- understanding complex sentences and academic vocabulary;
- manipulating maths symbols; and
- with tasks that relied on visual working memory.
However, they also recognised their study was limited in several ways, including no measurement of the amount of instruction or testing of working memory capabilities; and that further research was necessary to explain the relationship between LLI and maths skills more accurately.
Clinical bottom line
Language plays an important role in the instruction of maths. It also plays an important role in how maths is assessed. Poor language skills can contribute to – or compound – maths problems, particularly for kids with problems understanding complex syntax, abstract language concepts, and specialised maths vocabulary. If your child is struggling with school maths, you may want to consider arranging a language assessment to determine if they would benefit from language therapy targeting maths concepts, vocabulary and complex sentence structures, and/or additional visual or other support in the classroom.
Principal source: Alt, M., Arizmendi, G.D., Beal, C.R (2014). The Relationship Between Mathematics and Language: Academic Implications for Children with Specific Language Impairment and English Language Learners. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 45, 220-233.
*Confusingly, speech pathology academics and clinicians have used a whole range of different names for language learning impairments over the years in different places, including “specific language impairment”, “language disorder”, “language delay”, “language difficulty” or “developmental language disorder”.
**Alt’s study also looked at the maths skills of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) (bilingual) Spanish-speaking children, finding that modifying the assessments to lighten the English language load and adding Spanish instruction reduced the gap between English native speaking and ESL children’s maths performance and showing that standardised tests may underestimate an ESL child’s true maths ability. This is consistent with other studies showing that reducing language complexity in assessments allows children who speak English as a second language to improve their performance (e.g. Martinello, 2008.).
Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.