Words don’t let math add up for some students

Deb Van Brenk // Western NewsWestern graduate student Alexandra Cross is lead author of a new paper that suggests kids who have issues with some math problems may in fact have language delays.

Let’s say two trains leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds. Train A is traveling …

Math puzzles like these require kids to translate letters and words into numbers – and back again. That task poses a unique challenge for those with developmental language disorder (DLD), perhaps ironically making words the root of their numbers problem, according to a Western study.

These findings have important implications for classroom learning and teaching.

“Word problems tend to be quite language-heavy,” said Alexandra Cross, earning her clinical master’s degree in Speech Pathology and PhD in Speech and Language Sciences. “So, when teachers are asking these kind of problems, they’re not only asking children to read the problem and understand it, they’re asking them to disentangle the text and then do the calculations and then translate back into text ­– if they even remember what the question was in the first place.”

Recently, Cross reviewed research concerning different math tasks and different strengths/deficits of elementary-school kids who have trouble with oral and written language. She found a correlation between language delays and certain kinds of math tasks such as counting, whether counting objects one by one, jump-counting or identifying a range of numbers.

“In kids with DLD, they’re really struggling with verbal representations of these concepts,” Cross said. “The math difficulties we’re finding are language-based math difficulties.”

If the children cannot understand verbal information or verbal instruction, they won’t be as proficient at understanding and answering math questions that require them to process numbers as words.

For example, if they are asked to express the numeral 9 some other way – perhaps spelled out as ‘nine’ or marked as ‘::::.’ – they might struggle more than a child with typical language development. Those kids might understand the mathematical concept, but not the verbal or written expression that frames it.

Her research also showed these kids have equivalent performance in some math concepts such as number lines as their typically developing peers. To the researchers, that means the issue isn’t necessarily with math itself.

Co-authored with her supervisors, Psychology professor Marc Joanisse and Communication Sciences and Disorders professor Lisa Archibald, the paper, Mathematical Abilities in Children With Developmental Language Disorder, was published in the January 2019 edition of Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools.

While her review doesn’t include recommendations, Cross said helpful classroom or homework strategies would be to supplement abstract math examples with tactile ones; re-state verbal or written math problems using vocabulary that children with language delays would understand; and be flexible enough in assessments/tests to allow for scribing, re-defining terms or offering supplemental support.

Cross also said classroom teachers and parents should also work closely with speech-and-language pathologists to incorporate mathematical vocabulary and concepts into therapy sessions.