Words and numbers: specific impairments in reading and maths

Although we sometimes make snap judgments about people as being “smart” or “dumb”, we generally accept that people are good at some things but not at others. We all know someone who has “book smarts” but no “street smarts” (especially those of us who work in universities!). Equally, there may be some things we learn more easily, and other things that are more difficult. I was always pretty good with reading and maths at primary school, but my handwriting was terrible and artistic skills non-existent.

These days we are all pretty aware of something called “dyslexia,” which is defined essentially as a reading impairment in the absence of other problems. If someone has profound intellectual difficulties, it may not be surprising that they don’t read very well, but the reading problem is just one part of a much wider issue. On the other hand, if you have normal IQ and good general intellectual skills, but have trouble learning new word and reading texts, then we can call it a specific reading deficit, or dyslexia. There seem to be a variety of causes of dyslexia, and one of the challenges of studying it (and coming up with treatments) is that two different children with dyslexia may have very different causes for their conditions. However, it is a major problem, particularly for our schools, with 5-10% of children experiencing such reading difficulties.

While dyslexia is widely understood as a problem (even if we’re not sure of the solution), there is much less awareness of the same type of specific problem with mathematics. This seems pretty odd, because many people I talk to (including members of my family!) tell me that they were “no good at maths,” despite leading very successful lives in all other respects. People like this may have a specific mathematical impairment. In fact, researchers in psychology and education have identified exactly this condition, which is known as “dyscalculia,” and occurs with similar frequency to dyslexia. Kids that just don’t seem to get maths may not be dumb, and they may be trying hard; it might just be that they struggle to master mathematical concepts. Understanding if kids have dyscalculia is really important because it changes the way teachers try to present material in the classroom, and allows for personalized instruction.

My colleague in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, Associate Professor Karen Waldie, in collaboration with Dr Anna Wilson of the University of Canterbury, has recently published a really interesting study where they look to see whether dyslexia and dyscalculia are related, and whether they persist into adulthood. Across scientific studies it seems like a lot of people with one deficit also have the other; this could be due to chance but it may also be that a common problem allows both dyslexia and dyscalculia to develop. Anna and Karen (along with a wider research team) recruited adults who said they had a learning disorder, and used tests to split them into some with just dyslexia, some with just dyscalculia, and some with both. After giving the participants a battery of different psychological tests, they found that the two deficits seem to be distinct, so that people with both dyslexia and dyscalculia have two distinct deficits, rather than just one that generalizes to both reading and maths. In addition, they found strong evidence that dyscalculia persists strongly into adulthood.

As with other issues of cognitive development, it seems likely that catching these learning deficits early will help reduce their severity, and allow kids to develop more typical expertise with reading and maths.

For more information on Associate Professor Karen Waldie’s research, click here:

For more information on Dr Anna Wilson’s research, click here:

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