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Running head: EARLY PREDICTORS OF A MATHEMATICAL LEARNING DISABILITY 1

Early Predictors of a Mathematical Learning Disability

Carli Newberry
University of Calgary

EARLY PREDICTORS OF A MATHEMATICAL LEARNING DISABILITY 2
It is necessary for every child to become functionally competent in mathematics as they
will be expected to apply mathematical principles, such as counting, quantity comparisons and
arithmetic, regularly throughout their lives. It is estimated that 5% to 8% of students in public
education have a mathematical learning disability (MLD) (Geary, 2004). Unfortunately for these
students, the current norm in education is to focus more on reading interventions, and in lieu of
additional mathematics support, these students may eventually find themselves struggling in an
applied stream of math. However, new research has indicated that early interventions for
students with a MLD yield positive results (Lembke and Foegen, 2009). In order for educators to
utilize intervention strategies with a child, they must first be educated on early mathematical
development, and secondly, they must have a practical assessment tool. The purpose of this
paper is to clarify typical early mathematical development and compare it to the typical
development of a child with a MLD. Further, it will suggest practical assessment methods for
educators to screen for potential MLD candidates, allowing them to employ purposeful early
interventions.
Counting
Gelman and Gallistel (1978) proposed there are five implicit principles of counting: one-
to-one correspondence (every item is assigned its own number), stable order (the numbers are
always recited in the same order), cardinality (the value of the final number said represents the
quantity of items in the counted set), abstraction (all types of objects may be gathered in a set
and counted together) and order irrelevance (objects in the counted set can be numbered in any
sequence, not just linearly). By about the age of five, a child will have an understanding of most
of these principles, but will oftentimes erroneously believe that counting must begin at an
endpoint, and that it must proceed with adjacency. For example, if there were six items placed in
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a horseshoe shape, a five year old child would typically start at either end of the horseshoe, and
proceed to count each item in a linear fashion until they reached the sixth item at the other end.
By grade one, a typically achieving child will have mastered the five principles of counting
(Greary, 2004).
Conversely, students with MLDs still struggle with some of these basic principles in the
MLDs to watch a puppet count a set of objects. Their task was to say if the puppet counted
correctly or not. These students could identify correct counting techniques except for when the
puppet counted the items in random order, indicating a counting theory of adjacency more
typical of a five year old. Additionally, though the students could identify if the puppet double
counted on the last item, they did not count it as incorrect if the puppet double counted the first
item. Greary (2004) theorized this is likely due to a weak working memory typical of students
with MLDs. Greary et. al. repeated this experiment in 1999 using grade two students with MLDs
with identical findings (as cited in Greary, 2004). A further predictor of early difficulty in
mathematics is difficulty with number word sequence and not understanding the principle of
cardinality in preschool (Desoete and Gregoire, 2006).
Quantity Comparison
An important part of a childs developing number sense is the ability to compare differing
quantities. Case, Harris, and Graham (1992) studied the ability middle-income kindergarten
students had for comparing differing quantities. They found that most students could determine
that a group with 8 chips had more than a group with 5 chips. They found that only some of the
students had a number sense developed enough to say that 8 was 3 more than 5, or go on to
acknowledge that 12 is much greater than 3, whereas 5 is just slightly greater than 3 (as cited in
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Gersten, Jordan and Flojo, 2005). Similarly, Okamoto and Case (1996) found that while most
kindergarten students could count easily to five, some could not ascertain whether 4 was greater
than 2 (as cited in Gersten, Jordan and Flojo, 2005). In summary, it can be expected that the
typically developing 5-6 year old may have a developing sense of quantity comparison (Gersten,
Jordan and Flojo, 2005) but it would be expected that by 7, this concept should be solidified.
Students with MLDs will likely not be able to discriminate which group has more,
between the afore mentioned groups of 8 and 3. In fact, Baker, Gersten, and Flojo (2002),
Gersten and Chard (1999), and Gersten, Jordan and Flojo (2005) (as cited in Gersten, Jordan and
Flojo, 2005) all conclude that not having the ability to compare quantities in kindergarten is a
significant predictor of a MLD. Another interesting factor found in this particular aspect of
mathematics was in the research of Griffin, Case and Siegler (1994) who found that kindergarten
children of high socioeconomic status could answer a question such as Which number is bigger,
3 or 2? with 96% accuracy, compared to the low socioeconomic students who answered
correctly only 18% of the time (as cited in Gersten, Jordan and Flojo, 2005). This could indicate
that informal instruction that the child may have received at home is bolstering his mathematic
developmental theory, and it could be deduced that if a low socioeconomic child received similar
instruction at school, they too could succeed.
Arithmetic Fluency
As typical children progress in mathematics, there are marked changes in the problem
solving strategies they utilize to solve basic mathematic facts. When a child first begins to add,
they usually begin with a counting all strategy. For instance, when given 5 + 3, they may use
their fingers or manipulatives, and begin counting at 1 until they reach the answer, 8. The next
developmental stage is the counting on strategy, where the child would choose the larger
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number (5) and count 3 up Geary, 2004). This strategy appears near the beginning of second
grade, while they simultaneously start counting verbally instead of relying on their fingers.
Counting on continues until they memorize their basic math facts, which is typically completed
by the end of third grade (Gersten, Jordan and Flojo, 2005). At this point, they may still employ
the more round-a-bout strategy of decomposition. This involves reconstructing an answer based
on a partial sum. For example, if a child was trying to determine the sum of 7+8, they may
reason that 7+7 is 14 (because that is a fact stored in their long term memory of which they are
sure), and 14+1 is 15, therefore, 7+8=15 (Geary, 2004).
The strategies of students with MLDs are similar to typical children, but they do not
employ the same variety of strategies, or progress at the same rate as typically achieving
children. Desoete and Gregoire (2006) determined that a very early indicator of poor
mathematical skill was difficulty with simple calculation tasks in preschool, even when
presented with a picture. Additonally, this type of child will employ a counting-all strategy for
much longer than typical, and experience numerous counting errors. These children may also
rely extensively on their fingers to count, and have been shown to make negligible improvements
on committing basic facts to memory for their entire elementary school experience (Geary,
2004). Moreover, when students with MLDs attempt to recall facts from memory they commit
more errors and show error and reaction time patterns similar to children who have experienced a
lesion in the left hemisphere or associated subcortical regions at a very early age (younger than
8) (Ashcraft, Yamashita and Aram, 1992., as cited by Geary, 2004). Geary, Hamson and Hoard,
2000) deduced that these patterns enforce that students with MLDs have cognitive disorders, and
not an extraneous variable such as poor instruction, low IQ or low motivation (as cited in Greary,
2004).
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Summary
The following chart summarizes the mathematical processes and principles necessary to master
at an early stage. It also gives early characteristics or indicators for MLD and suggestions for
informal assessment of these early predictors.
Mathematical
Process
Early Predictor of MLD Suggestion for Assessment
Counting Have not mastered stable
order and cardinality theories
in preschool
Have not mastered order
Count a set of items in a variety of
ways which violate different
counting principles (right-to-left,
left-to-right, random order, double
count first item, double count last
item, etc.) and have the student tell
the examiner if they counted
correctly.
Quantity Comparison Cannot tell which group is
bigger in kindergarten
Cannot tell if one numeral is
greater than another (eg. 5 >
3) in kindergarten
Conference with the child showing
them manipulatives and images.
Arithmetic Fluency Unable to solve simple
computational problems in
preschool with the aid of a
picture
Extensive use of counting
Unusual reliance on fingers
problem to a preschool child with
the assistance of a child friendly
visual aid.

Ask an early elementary student to
record the strategies that they
employ to solve it.
MLD = Mathematical learning disability.
Conclusion
A child with a MLD will often present with the same skills and abilities of a much
younger, typically achieving child (Gersten, Jordan and Flojo, 2005). Recent studies suggest that
there are many methods for early screening of potentional MLDs, and that early intervention
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strategies are an effective means of remediation. If primary educators are made aware of the
warning signs of mathematical difficulty, and put into place appropriate supports, the
percentage of students with MLD may decline, although more research is necessary to determine
the long-term effects of these early mathematical interventions.

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References
Desoete, A., & Grgoire, J. (2006). Numerical competence in young children and in children
with mathematics learning disabilities. Learning and Individual Differences, 16(4), 351-
367. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2006.12.006
Geary, D. C. (2004). Mathematics and learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities,
37(1), 4-15. doi:10.1177/00222194040370010201
Gersten, R., Flojo, J. R., & Jordan, N. C. (2005). Early identification and interventions for
students with mathematics difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(4), 293-304.
doi:10.1177/00222194050380040301
Lembke, E., & Foegen, A. (2009). Identifying early numeracy indicators for kindergarten and
first-grade students. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24(1), 12-20.
doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2008.01273.x