Adventures in Article Reviews – 2

It’s the 2nd Tuesday of the month, which means it’s time for Blogging About Research! Today’s review will follow a similar (although I reserve the right to change it slightly) format to the previous blogging about research which you can find here and of course, you can read the compilation of blogs here.

So…Let’s get started!

blog research reviews

Title:Impact of Language Ability on Exact and Approximate Number Skills Development: Evidence From Children with Specific Language Impairment.

Background:  A specific language impairment not only impacts reading/writing, but also impacts an individual’s math ability. The ability to count and do mental arithmetic are related to language. Children (age 7) with an SLI count up to 42 on average, but age-matched children who are typically developing counted up to 85.

Purpose: The purpose of the study was to determine if the development of number skills is related to language ability.

Questions: 1) Are exact arithmetic skills impaired or preserved in children with SLI? 2) Are approximate comparison skills impaired or preserved in children with SLI? and 3) Are the capacities to perform approximate arithmetic impaired or preserved?

What they did: The purpose of the study was to see if number skills are related to language. Three tasks were administered to 28 school-age children with specific language impairment and 122 control children (age matched and vocabulary matched). The first task was an “exact addition task” in which the children solved two-digit addition problems. The second task was an “approximate comparison task” where the children had to estimate which of two quantities was largest. The final task was an “approximate addition task” where the students added two estimated quantities and compared the sum to a third quantity to determine which was bigger. 

Each question was answered individually, with the same set of analysis being performed for each question. The hypothesis was that vocabulary matched (younger) children and children with SLI would perform with less accuracy when compared to the age-matched children. The researchers went on to state the expectation was that children with SLI would make slower progress than their peers.

The researchers tested 44 children with identified specific language impairment. Of those 28 met the criteria to be included in the research. The median age was 10;1, with an age range of 7;2 – 14;4. The children with SLI were all receiving speech-language services in a special education classroom.

The control group consisted of 122 children, median age of 9;9, range of 7;2 – 13;0. No language services were reported and none of the children had been previously identified as language impaired.

The children were tested over multiple sessions. For the exact addition task, participants were asked to mentally solve addition problems presented to them on a computer screen. For the approximate comparison task, the participants were asked to identify which of two quantities presented on a computer screen was larger. For the approximate addition task, the children were asked to add two estimated quantities and determine if the sum or a third quantity was larger.

Results: The study found children with SLI tended to have lower verbal short-term memory, lower executive functioning, and lower finger discrimination skills than age-matched children.

For the exact number tasks, children with SLI scored lower than age-matched children.  In addition, the percentage of children who feel within the lower 10% of scores was larger for children with SLI than age-matched children. However, there was not a statistically significant difference when it came to the approximate number tasks.

Real life applications: Children with SLI may have lingering difficulty with exact addition tasks even if they appear to be similar to peers in approximation tasks.

Some of the testing indicated a significant correlation between exact mathematic skills and phonological processing skills. This indicates perhaps the difficulty is in sequential processing and/or information retrieval. Children who have difficulty with phonological encoding may be less able to perform complex calculations in math.

Thoughts: This study was interesting for a number of reasons (once I waded through the math jargon). First, quite often our students who are language disordered struggle with math concepts. Similarly, I’ve learned that many children with a diagnosed reading difficulty often struggle with math as well. For many, the theory has been that it’s reading and comprehending the story problems that are the problem. But…perhaps it’s not. Perhaps the difficulty is truly in the sequencing and information retrieval.

How we would approach those skills will be vastly different. If simply being able to decode the story problems better isn’t enough (which from the study it sounds like it isn’t), exact math skills won’t improve. It also helps explain why sometimes students can do well in math for a while, then all of a sudden tank when the tasks become harder and more complex. Perhaps, more importantly, this study demonstrates the need to be aware of potential math challenges in kids who struggle with phonological awareness. For many years, we’ve known that kids with a speech sound disorder (phono disorder) often will struggle with reading – that’s why we incorporate metaphonological activities in Cycles. But, now it’s also a red flag for potential math difficulties. I can see this being an important addition to RTI information as well.

So…what are your thoughts? Do you see this pattern in your own students? Let me know.

Until then…Adventure on!


6 thoughts on “Adventures in Article Reviews – 2

  1. That’s so interesting! It’s very illuminating to see that it’s deficits in sequencing and short term memory that affect skills across the board. It makes a lot of sense, especially when you are considering the child’s skill areas and challenge areas holistically.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Mary, This was a pretty complicated study. I read it in JSHR, and I commend you for a great review! Here are my thoughts:
    1). Correlational statistics are misleading. I wouldn’t put too much weight on them. The authors had to report them, since the statistic was used; but correlations carry minimal weight in most research.
    2). The authors used the Forward Digit Span to examine “verbal short term memory”. Most of us in the US no longer use this for that reason, because it’s been shown many times that the Forward Digit Span is a test of the phonological store of working memory (i.e, the ability to repeat a series of phonemes accurately). It’s essential for speech articulation development.
    3) The concept of “verbal short term memory” has been recently challenged. (see Acheson, Hamidi, Binder, Postle (2011). A common neural substrate for language production and verbal working memory. Jrnl of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23:6, 1358-1367).
    4.) I believe the authors reported from the ANOVA that the only real differences between the groups were age- related. The SLI children were reported to “catch up” to their AM peers with regards to math skills as they matured, developed cognitively, and were taught math in school. I could be wrong, but I think the authors noted that language delay didn’t seem to play that much of a role in the approximation task. (These tasks seemed very cognitive to me, BTW)
    5) To suggest that “children who have difficulty with phonological encoding may be less able to perform complex calculations in math” based on correlational stats is a bit of a stretch IMHO.
    6). I think your initial understanding as an SLP, that language delays, SLI, and comprehension of math problems are inherently related, is correct.

    Thank you for incorporating a research review in your website! We all need to recognize that research is fundamental to our profession and clinical practice.

    Best regards,
    Suzanne M. Miller, PhD CCC/SLP

  3. Pingback: Blogging about Research #SLPBloggers July Edition | "Talks Just Fine"

  4. Congrats on taking on research articles! You continue to amaze me! I certainly hope we finally get to meet face to face at ASHA this year.
    As far as math and our SLD kiddos … I try to stay as far away from working with math as possible. My caseload, more often than not, overlaps with the LD Resource teachers’. I let them handle the math issues but I do consult with them.
    This article, your comments, and those of everyone else, offered a lot to think about as we look at the needs of our students. Thanks!

  5. This is fascinating. I’m going to digest it for a bit and go back and look at the original article. Math language/vocab itself is an issue that comes up in my setting with regularity.
    What I really wanted to say though was I love this monthly research recap which is much more accessible and, because of that, has me more likely to go back and search out the original source. A heartfelt thank you for providing such a wonderful service (and I know you’ll say it wasn’t your idea, but it doesn’t matter 😉 Kim

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