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News Release

April 26, 2006

U of G Study Sheds Light on Math Disabilities

New research by a University of Guelph psychology professor will make it easier to assess and help children who have problems with math.

Marcia Barnes’ research, published in the current issue of Journal of Learning Disabilities, found that, contrary to what was previously believed, visual-spatial skills and math calculation skills are unrelated. She also found that children’s math difficulties stem from only a couple of key problems.

It’s often been thought that math calculation and visual-spatial skills, such as putting block puzzles together, are somehow related, said Barnes. She and her colleagues tested this theory by looking at children with spina bifida.

Spina bifida, North America’s most common disabling birth defect, affects the development of both the spine and brain. Because 40 per cent of children with spina bifida have math disabilities and a large proportion of them have difficulties with visual-spatial skills, the study group allowed Barnes and her five colleagues to pinpoint types of math difficulties and determine if they are related to visual-spatial problems.

“About 50 per cent of children who have math disabilities also have reading disabilities, so to get a math disorder on its own is more rare,” said Barnes.

For her study, Barnes looked at the math skills of about 100 children with spina bifida in Grade 3 to high school, compared with the skills of a control group of about 100 typically developing children of the same age, grade and reading ability.

“We found no relation between math calculations and visual-spatial skills,” said Barnes. “Even the children with the most severe visual-spatial problems did not make visual-spatial errors in their written multi-digit calculations, and visual-spatial abilities were not related to calculation abilities more generally.”

In a previous study, Barnes found that children’s visual-spatial skills are related to other areas of math, such as estimation and geometry.

The researchers looked at both speed and accuracy of math calculations and found that the children with math difficulties often got the answer right but were slow in getting it.

When children take too long to do simple math functions, it can lead to “bottlenecks” in multi-digit problem solving, said Barnes. “It’s similar to slow readers having difficulty understanding what they’ve read because the overall picture gets lost.”

Regardless of a child’s type of disability – straight math, reading and math, association with a brain disorder, such as spina bifida – the researchers found that the problems with math looked very similar. “This means you can start to be much more strategic in planning assessment and intervention for children with math difficulties,” said Barnes. “The programs that work for kids without brain disorders may be the same programs that will help children with brain injuries improve their math skills.”

Barnes and her colleagues have presented their findings to international, national and provincial meetings to help parents, health professionals and educators understand math disabilities. Barnes also contributed to the recently released Ontario Ministry of Education report “Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6.”

Marcia Barnes
University of Guelph
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53299, or

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