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August 24, 1999

Children’s inability to automatically retrieve building blocks of language, math leads to learning disabilities in reading, writing, arithmetic

BOSTON – For children with learning disabilities success at reading and mathematics isn’t always as easy as learning their ABCs or that two plus two equals four. That’s because some youngsters have difficulty automatically retrieving such basic building blocks as letters, words, numbers and mathematical facts.

A new study by University of Washington researchers, comparing children with a reading disability to those with dual reading and math calculation disabilities, indicates that this inability to rapidly retrieve basic information leads to impaired ability across the three domains of reading, writing and math.

The study also provides new evidence that there are distinct subtypes of learning disabilities and that specialized interventions may be required to help children overcome these different kinds of disabilities.

These findings will be presented here today at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association by Julie Busse, a UW educational psychology doctoral student. The results come from a larger study looking at the family genetics of learning disabilities headed by Virginia Berninger, UW professor of educational psychology. The work is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The inability to rapidly and automatically retrieve and identify the building blocks of language and math forces children to use more cognitive resources to recall basic material. This, in turn, means their attention is not focused on higher thinking processes such as comprehension and problem solving, according to Berninger and Busse.

They liken learning to read and do math to mastering how to drive a car.

“There are certain things we need to learn to operate a car, such as shifting gears and when to switch on a turn signal. Many of these become automatic so we can be alert to other drivers and conditions on the road,” says Berninger.

“This is why we start by learning to drive in an empty parking lot and not on the freeway with all of its complexity, “adds Busse. “To be good at reading, writing and mathematics we also need to coordinate and recall all kinds of basic information automatically.”

The UW researchers say children with the dual reading and math calculation disability typically don’t complete their written school work on time. This becomes a big problem and children become frustrated. Eventually they start to avoid, math, reading and writing.

“With dual disabilities, the big message is if your child is having trouble across subjects, it may be because he or she is having trouble getting things on automatic pilot,” says Berninger. “These children need to be told that they are not ‘stupid,’ even though sometimes they may be labeled that way because so much of what we do is automatic. The children we studied all have IQs above the mean.”

The UW study looked at first through sixth graders from 102 families who either had a reading disability or dual disability in reading and writing. The children were given a three-to-four-hour battery of 15 tests that measured reading, writing and math skills. Among the tests was one that checked rapid automatic naming by having the children read rows of letters, digits and of letters and digits from cards.

The researchers found that the children who have the most difficulty with this skill are more likely to be overall impaired in reading, writing and math calculation. Children who are less hampered by rapid automatic naming are more likely to only be reading impaired.

“If you have this deficit you have limited access to your memory for remembering the names of the letter F or the numeral 6. Dual deficit kids really have a difficult time identifying letters and numbers quickly and automatically. You can see it in how fast they can read and write a sentence under time constraints,” says Busse.

“We don’t know yet, but perhaps these children just need more practice in learning these automatic elements,” says Berninger. “Or it may be that their nervous systems are wired differently and more practice will aggravate the problem. At this point we don’t know if this problem can be fixed or if school curriculums are wrong for these children. Schools may well need new interventions to help these children.”

Other members of the UW research team are Robert Abbott, professor of educational psychology, and Jennifer Thomson, research coordinator.

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For more information, contact Busse at (206) 616-6381 or busse@u.washington. Aug. 21-24 she may be reached at the Marriott at Copley Place in Boston at (617) 236-5800.
Berninger may be reached at (206) 543-1846 or at vwb@u.washington.edu.
A complete copy of the study is available.