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Can Math Disabilities Help Identify Reading Disabilities?


By: Daniel J. Dunleavy

In many instances, the sooner a problem is identified, the better the result. For example, in healthcare, early diagnosis of a disease can lead to earlier initiation of treatment and faster access to additional support services. In education, the earlier academic challenges are identified, the faster teachers and staff can provide help. This can come in a variety of forms, including formally testing a child for a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia, or enrolling a child in a therapeutic program, such as speech therapy.

Psychologists and educational researchers are increasingly studying how to best predict, identify, and treat learning disabilities. Recently, researchers at Florida State University (FSU) investigated the extent to which having a math disability was associated with having a reading disability. If there is an association, a math disability may be one marker that researchers (and school staff) can use to more quickly and accurately identify potential reading disabilities. Rachel Joyner, a PhD student in the FSU Developmental Psychology program, and her mentor Richard Wagner, investigated this question by synthesizing a large portion of the research literature, using a technique called ‘meta-analysis’. Whereas single research studies can provide some indication of whether a particular scientific finding exists, a meta-analysis combines results of many studies on a topic or question. By performing a meta-analysis, researchers can then draw stronger conclusions about their research questions, than could otherwise have been done.

The authors performed a comprehensive search of the research literature and identified 705 potentially relevant studies. After scrutinizing these results, they narrowed it down to 36 relevant studies. After statistically synthesizing the results of those studies, the authors found that when math disability was present, it was over 2 times more likely that there was also a reading disability present. In other words, based on these studies, when an individual had a math disability, they were more than twice as likely to have a reading disability than someone who did not have a math disability.

While one of the more comprehensive studies on the topic, the results are not conclusive. It is unclear the extent to which other factors impacted the results. For instance, differences in how mathematical disabilities were assessed by researchers could have impacted the resulting statistical analyses. Further, even if the results of this study are accurate, we are not able to determine why there is an association between reading and math disabilities. To answer that question, additional research is needed.

Ultimately, this study advances our understanding of a possible relationship between reading and math disability. The results point to math disability as a potential identifying factor for the presence of reading disabilities. This study will inform future research studies and can raise awareness among teachers and school staff about a possible link between these two learning disabilities. As a result, identification of these problems may be faster and more accurate.

Citation: Joyner, R. E., & Wagner, R. K. (2020). Co-occurrence of reading disabilities and math disabilities: A meta-analysis. Scientific Studies of Reading, 24(1), 14-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2019.1593420