Psychological Perspectives in Assessing Mathematics Learning Needs

Article excerpt

While the definition of learning disabilities has been the subject of controversy for decades, the current federal classification system identifies three specific areas of deficit: reading, written language, and mathematics and maintains the presumption that the disabilities are a result of a central nervous system dysfunction, in contrast to the expansive literature base in language arts, research on math disability is far less developed and continues to lack an empirically-based identification of core deficits. The purpose of this article is to review the current research base on math learning disabilities with the related literature in developmental, cognitive, social, and neuro- psychology in order to refine the reader's knowledge of relevant factors in mathematics learning and intervention planning for individual learners.

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The prevalence of formally classified learning disabilities (LD) has been increasing throughout the last two decades. As a result, there is a greater need for teachers to possess an extensive array of teaching techniques to address the needs of these students. Due to current emphasis on targeted interventions, it is important that educators have knowledge of the different learning disabilities and how they manifest in the children they teach. According to National Council of Teacher's of Mathematics "Students with special educational needs must have the opportunities and support they require to attain a substantial understanding of important mathematics." (NCTM, 2000 p.5).

Unfortunately, a consummate framework is dependent on the current state of research on math learning disabilities (MLD) which is far less developed than that of reading disabilities (Geary, 1993; Mazzocco & Myers, 2003). The need for more systematic research and unified theory surrounding MLD is highlighted by a major funding initiative through the National Institute of Health and the Education Department (Special Education Report, 2003) to propagate research in the areas of math cognition, learning, and MLD. A seminal component of the literature base, which remains lacking, is an empirically-based identification of core deficits, and thus, a consensus operational definition for math disability. For example, identification of phonological decoding deficits is evidenced across various subtypes of reading disabilities, persists over time, and serves as a basis for planned and efficient intervention. It may be the case that no core deficits exist for MLD, but rather, various subtypes coexist which lack a unifying core (Mazzocco & Myers, 2003).

The purpose of this article is to review the current research base in MLD with the related literature in developmental, cognitive, social, and neuro- psychology in order to refine the reader's knowledge of relevant factors in mathematics learning and intervention planning for individual learners.

Numerical Skills

Continued development of arithmetic skills, even at low levels of abstraction, is a complex process involving specialized arithmetic language, quantity, reasoning, and transcoding of words and symbols (Landerl, Bevan, & Butterworth, 2004). In studies predicting future academic achievement from skills measured at kindergarten screening, research has suggested that mathematics performance is predicted by a more complex set of skills than is reading performance (Augustyniak, Cook-Cottone, & Calabrese, 2004; Kurdek, & Sinclair, 2001). In addition to language processing skills which facilitate semantic understanding of quantitative concepts, even early levels of math curriculum require a multitude of cognitive activities, including counting knowledge, number production and comprehension, fact ability, procedural knowledge, and problem solving. Moreover, each of aforementioned cognitive demands commands a combination of inherent and experiential factors. For example, counting requires mastery of the principles of one-to-one correspondence, stable order, cardinality, and abstraction. …