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Reading and Math Disabilities: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Arlington, Va.

Many children who have reading difficulties such as dyslexia also struggle with math—and educators need to be prepared to address both issues, as well as the behavior problems that may arise in children who struggling academically. 

That finding is one of the takeaways of a National Science Foundation-sponsored conference this week that brought experts in the fields of STEM education and learning disabilities. 

Back in 2016, Congress approved the Research Excellence and Advancement for Dyslexia, or READ Act, which set aside federal funds to support research in the science of learning disabilities and dyslexia, as well as best practices for teacher professional development and curricula development. The act specifically names science, technology, engineering and mathematics education as a priority, specifically in how STEM education might differ for learners with dyslexia. 

The two-day conference was intended to connect researchers working in these areas to talk about best practices and potential new areas to explore.

One of the challenges, speakers noted, is that children with dyslexia are often not getting the effective interventions that they need.

"There still remains major misunderstandings about dyslexia," said Jack Fletcher, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and the principal investigator for the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities. Dyslexia, marked by struggles in reading, spelling and writing, can be addressed through explicit and comprehensive reading instruction, Fletcher said, including explicit instruction in phonics. But for too many children, that's not happening, he said. 

With the STEM focus of the conference, many of the speakers talked about the connection between reading and math difficulties for children. For example, research has shown that children who struggle with vocabulary as toddlers are at risk of developing math difficulties when they enter school. The federal government is funding research into the connection between language comprehension and math problem-solving

So what does this mean for teachers? Rose Vukovic, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, suggests a broader definition of disabilities.

"When we say 'learning disabilities', we are mostly talking about reading," said Vukovic, who has done research on groups of elementary-age students with reading difficulties, showing that many of them had problems with math as well. "We have to pay attention to other facets as well. We can't do reading to the exclusion of everything else." 

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