Dyscalculia linked to difficulties in reading and spelling (research)

Sometimes people seem to think you’re good in languages or you’re good in math, as it would seem to be 2 opposites. We already described in earlier posts this is not the case (check here and here). A new study again shows that there probably is a link. Between three and six percent of schoolchildren suffer from an arithmetic-related learning disability. A new study now shows that these children are also more likely to exhibit deficits in reading and spelling than had been previously suspected. Btw, there is also an interesting gender twist included.

From the press release:

Addition and subtraction, multiplication and division are the four basic operations in arithmetic. But for some children, learning these fundamental skills is particularly challenging. Studies show that they have problems grasping the concepts of number, magnitude, and quantity, and that they do poorly when asked to estimate relative amounts. In mathematics classes they consistently lag behind, although they have little difficulty in subjects. In other words, they suffer from a highly specific learning disorder, which psychologists call ‘dyscalculia’. In total, about 5% of second- to fourth-graders manifest the condition. Depending on which arithmetical operation is tested, the prevalence of the disorder varies between 3 and 6%.

These figures emerge from a new study carried out by LMU researchers led by Professor Gerd Schulte-Körne, Director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, which has just been published. The data are based on tests carried out on 1633 third- and fourth-graders in schools in the Munich area.

An arithmetic-related deficit can have a drastic effect on overall scholastic achievement and on the psychological development of the children affected. They are reluctant to go to school because they are afraid of being perceived as failures and embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates. Wherever possible, they resort to the use of avoidance strategies and develop a negative self-image. In the end, their performance also suffers in subjects in which they are perfectly capable. Their lack of mathematical skills usually precludes them from going on to the type of secondary school for which their level of intelligence would otherwise qualify them, and impedes their chances of higher education. Indeed, so long as they continue to get bad marks in mathematics, their chances of even completing secondary school remain low.

A promising training model

Schulte-Körne complains that the problems of children who suffer from dyscalculia are often overlooked in everyday classroom routine. Furthermore, unlike the situation in the case of dyslexic disorders, there is no provision in Bavarian schools for adapting the learning environment so as to alleviate the burden on these children, he adds. “This is not an appropriate response to a disorder that has a biological basis,” he says. It would, for example, be perfectly possible to give such children more time to complete their classwork in mathematics, to give them extra help, and even to refrain altogether from assigning a formal mark to their performance in the subject.

The new study, however, also shows that developmental deficits in cognition can affect more than one learning domain. The LMU researchers found the prevalence of so-called comorbidity to be far higher than has been previously recognized. According to psychologist Dr. Kristina Moll, first author on the new report, about 57% of children who have an arithmetic-related learning disorder also suffer from a reading or spelling disability. “These data were quite a surprise for us,” Schulte-Körne confesses. “This finding forces us to think again about diagnostic procedures for specific learning disorders but, above all, about how we can more effectively treat these conditions,” Moll adds. “These children need intensive and specific training and support. Otherwise, they are in danger of failing to achieve the scholastic success that would be compatible with their general level of intelligence.” As Schulte-Körne points out, effective approaches to the mitigation of dyscalculia are already available. These, however, require intensive, long-term training programs for the children affected.

In addition, the new study reveals that gender also appears to play a role in determining susceptibility to specific learning disorders, says Schulte-Körne: While deficits in spelling are more prevalent among boys, girls are more likely to display dyscalculia. Reading difficulties, on the other hand, appear to be equally prevalent in both sexes. The reasons for these striking findings remain unclear. Schulte-Körne suspects that biological factors are responsible, given that the learning environments experienced by both sexes are very similar.

Abstract of the research (free access):

Comprehensive models of learning disorders have to consider both isolated learning disorders that affect one learning domain only, as well as comorbidity between learning disorders. However, empirical evidence on comorbidity rates including all three learning disorders as defined by DSM-5 (deficits in reading, writing, and mathematics) is scarce. The current study assessed prevalence rates and gender ratios for isolated as well as comorbid learning disorders in a representative sample of 1633 German speaking children in 3rd and 4th Grade. Prevalence rates were analysed for isolated as well as combined learning disorders and for different deficit criteria, including a criterion for normal performance. Comorbid learning disorders occurred as frequently as isolated learning disorders, even when stricter cutoff criteria were applied. The relative proportion of isolated and combined disorders did not change when including a criterion for normal performance. Reading and spelling deficits differed with respect to their association with arithmetic problems: Deficits in arithmetic co-occurred more often with deficits in spelling than with deficits in reading. In addition, comorbidity rates for arithmetic and reading decreased when applying stricter deficit criteria, but stayed high for arithmetic and spelling irrespective of the chosen deficit criterion. These findings suggest that the processes underlying the relationship between arithmetic and reading might differ from those underlying the relationship between arithmetic and spelling. With respect to gender ratios, more boys than girls showed spelling deficits, while more girls were impaired in arithmetic. No gender differences were observed for isolated reading problems and for the combination of all three learning disorders. Implications of these findings for assessment and intervention of learning disorders are discussed.



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