Math is tougher than reading, study finds

Math is tougher than reading after all, a new study has determined

By Joannie Laucicus

Why is it that for some children reading is a snap, but math is daunting?

About six years ago, Jo-Anne LeFevre, director of the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University, and her colleagues studied elementary students in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Peterborough.

One of the things they learned was that children need a more complex set of skills to master math than reading. These skills include the ability to process language, identify quantities and pay attention to the task. Children with attention deficit disorder, for example, often have difficulty with math. “It’s more complicated than reading,” says LeFevre.

Researchers are learning more and more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to learning math.

Most parents, for example, have long grasped the idea that reading to children helps them acquire literacy skills. But preliminary research also suggests that playing simple number-based games, such as Snakes and Ladders, helps develop math skills.

“It’s independent of parents who read to kids,” says LeFevre, who points to a U.S. study of low-income preschoolers published in 2008 in Child Development.

The study found that children who played a game using numbers for about an hour scored higher on four numerical tasks than children who played the game using colours. The gains remained nine weeks later.

Previous research shows that proficiency in math at the beginning of kindergarten is strongly predictive of math achievement test scores later — in elementary school, in middle school and even in high school.

The same researchers also found that playing board and card games such as checkers and Go Fish at home meshed with numerical knowledge. At the same time, it’s not so clear whether children’s literature used to teach math is all that powerful, says LeFevre.

“I suspect that some aspects of math — like vocabulary, as well as number system knowledge — could come through nicely in this format, whereas other things need to be done using real objects and manipulatives (beads and blocks, for example) rather than words,” she says.

“And given our other research, some children will probably not benefit if their linguistic skills are relatively weak. In contrast, for children with good linguistic but weaker quantitative skills, perhaps learning about math concepts through literature would be ideal. As far as I know, no one has tried to find out.”

There are also cultural differences in the way math is taught. In China and other countries that produce successful math students, elementary school math is taught by math specialists rather than by generalist teachers, as in Canada. This probably makes a difference, she says.

Even a student’s mother tongue may play a role and researchers are probing this possibility. Cantonese, for example, has words for numbers based on units of 10. It’s relatively easy to grasp, even for very young children. It may set the stage for being comfortable with math.

The debate remains on whether today’s students have lost something because they didn’t learn math the way their parents did.

LeFevre believes there has been a decline in some kinds of math proficiency because children no longer do drills in school. She teaches a first-year statistics course at Carleton and notes that students have more difficulty doing pen-and-paper calculations. LeFevre, who is 50, says she can probably do three times as many problems in the same time as a 20-year-old student.

“It’s a huge change,” she says. “I teach skills. I see this.”

Are some people just genetically programmed to be better at math? Lynda Colgan, an education professor at Queen’s University, says not.

“Research shows that all children are born with an innate sense of number and simple computation,” she says. “It is the responsibility of parents and early childhood teachers to build upon this capacity.”

Everyone has the potential to be successful in mathematics, Colgan says, “just not on the same day, and not in the same way.”

Attitude and disposition are key factors in student achievement. Parents are a child’s first role models and their most important teachers, so don’t pretend that being able to do math isn’t an important skill.

“There is research to show that we become who we are when we are 10. Interestingly, this is the age at which 50% of elementary schoolchildren in Ontario say that math is hard, they are not good at math, and that they do not like math,” she says. “I suspect this is another example of nurture versus nature.”

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