The Parish School Blog

More to Math Than Numbers

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Math and reading seem to be the two areas of academics that society focuses on the most. They also happen to be two areas in which children who have language disorders and executive functioning difficulties frequently struggle. It’s easy to see how a difficulty understanding language can impact a child’s ability to read – reading requires the ability to comprehend written language. However, determining how difficulties with language can impact a child’s mathematical ability is much less obvious.

Mathematics is much more than just understanding numbers.  When most people think of math, they think of equations like 5+5=10, which is factual knowledge (stored number facts). Yet there is also conceptual knowledge (understanding that addition and subtraction are opposites or that dividing breaks a number into smaller groups) and procedural knowledge (carrying the one when adding above 10 or which operation to do first in an equation). A child’s executive functioning skills and language ability may impact one or all areas.

math homeworkHere are a few ways language and executive functioning skills impact mathematics:

  • Vocabulary: Mathematics is often thought of as having its own “language.”
    • New languages come with a new set of specific vocabulary to learn – addition, subtraction, multiplication, fraction, axis, angle, degree, etc.
    • Many mathematical terms are also language concepts: more/less, greater than/less than, equal to
    • Word problems frequently use language concepts in the problems: between (a number between 2 and 7)
  • Sequencing: The ability to arrange things in order.
    • Most problems involve multiple processes to complete. A child who has difficulty following multi-step directions in the classroom frequently has difficulty sequencing math problems.
  • Gestalt ability: The capacity to see the parts from the whole.
    • This proficiency is necessary when gleaning important information from word problems and when using context clues to decide what operation to use (addition, multiplication, division, etc.).
  • Working Memory: The ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind for a brief period.
    • A strong working memory is needed when remembering the numbers in a problem; keeping the important information from a word problem in your mind and manipulating that data; holding the answer in mind while answering multiple choice questions; and so much more.
  • Inhibition: The ability to voluntarily stop or restrain an action.
    • This skill is needed to count with one-to-one correspondence and to suppress distracting or unnecessary information in word problems or multiple-choice questions. One-to-one correspondence is the ability to match an object to the corresponding number and recognize that numbers are symbols to represent a quantity. 

As you can see, when it comes to math, 5+5 is actually much more complicated than we thought.



L. Cragg & C. Gilmore (2014) Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 3 (2), 63-68.

C. Donlan, R. Cowan, E. J. Newton & D. Lloyd (2007). The role of language in mathematical development: Evidence from children with specific language impairments. Cognition, 103 (1,) 23-33.

X. Zhang (2016). Linking language, visual-spatial, and executive function skills to number competence in very young Chinese children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36 (3), 178-189.

L. Cragg, S. Keeble, S. Richardson, H. Roome & C. Gilmore (2017). Direct and indirect influences of executive functions on mathematics achievement. Cognition, 162, 12-26

D.C. Geary (2004). Mathematics and Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disability, 37 (1), 4-15

K. Kearns (2010). Frameworks for Learning and Development. (2nd ed). Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Australia. Math and Number Awareness. Retrieved from