Taking on Math Difficulties: Helping All Children and Youth Who Struggle

By Doidge, Joshua; Toplak, Maggie E. | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Taking on Math Difficulties: Helping All Children and Youth Who Struggle


Doidge, Joshua, Toplak, Maggie E., Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Well-developed math skills have never been more important than in our current modern world. All of the historical reasons for the importance of being good at math still exist. People must know how to do simple arithmetic to divide up the cupcakes among a hungry group of children or do basic estimations to determine if the family budget will survive unexpected expenses. Today, however, the demand on our mathematical skills has never been so great. We are now constantly being presented with numbers, data and statistics that are reported to us on a constant basis in the media, in advertisements, and on the Internet. The bottom line is that math is really important, in fact, more important than ever. For this reason, our children have a lot of math to master in their school years.

We were pleased to accept the role of theme editors for this issue on math difficulties, as the critical role of numerical competence figures prominently in our own research on decision making (Stanovich, West, & Toplak, 2016). In compiling this issue, we invited several authors, mainly researchers, to address this topic from their work. We purposely chose authors who could provide a broad and hopefully representative sample of current thinking and issues in understanding why our students are having difficulties in mathematics. The articles touch on several topics, including diagnostic issues related to learning disabilities in mathematics, developmental issues from elementary school to college/university levels, cognitive and motivational processes that underlie math difficulties, and the role of language in learning math. Finally, we invited a math tutor to also read this set of articles and write a response based on her experience and what she sees as the current needs of students in the area of math.

Marcia A. Barnes, Amanda Martinez-Lincoln and Kimberly P. Raghubar begin this issue with a thorough guide on recent changes that have been made in the diagnosis of learning disabilities related to mathematics. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition, published in 2013 (APA, 2013), is used by many practitioners in the diagnosis of mental health conditions and learning disorders, and includes learning difficulties related to math in the taxonomy. The authors provide a broad perspective on the research behind the criteria for math learning disabilities. One of the major shifts in thinking in these new criteria is that instead of diagnosing a "Math Disorder," this taxonomy uses a more general diagnosis of "Specific Learning Disorder," which gives the opportunity for clinicians and educators to exhaustively specify all of the areas of difficulty, as there is commonly overlap among different domains of learning. For example, it is common for children with learning disabilities to struggle with both reading and math, and the new definition would include these different areas of difficulty in one disorder. Barnes et al. also make important points about remediation and the importance of math-specific interventions, as opposed to interventions targeting more general areas, such as working memory. These authors also provide a summary table that succinctly explains changes in the recent diagnostic criteria for learning disabilities in mathematics, which will be a useful reference for practitioners, teachers, and parents.

These articles importantly span the developmental periods from elementary school to university/college students. Rebecca M. Merkley and Daniel Ansari discuss the importance of symbolic comparison abilities in the primary grades, and how understanding numerical symbols in terms of words, digits, and quantities is a fundamental skill that requires the ability to think flexibly. Learning number symbols is critical for grasping concepts both learned outside and before school and then within school. Jo-Anne LeFevre, Heather Douglas and Judith Wylie describe their research on how even university students can struggle with simple arithmetic, which can inhibit the understanding of complex principles, since fluency (i. …

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