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Working Memory and Early Mathematics: Possibilities for Early Identification of Mathematics Learning Disabilities

International Perspectives

ISBN: 978-0-7623-1440-9, eISBN: 978-1-84950-503-1

Publication date: 18 July 2007


At the beginning of children's school careers, large differences already exist between children in their mathematical skills and knowledge. Preparatory math skills such as counting and Piagetian operations are important predictors of later math learning disabilities. However, little research has been conducted on the underlying processes that could explain or predict these preparatory math skills. Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed, next to language (vocabulary), as an important predictor of school success in general and math performance in specific. However, recent studies suggest that other, more fluid, domain-general cognitive processes, such as working memory and executive functions, are better predictors than traditional IQ scores. This chapter reports on two studies in which the relations between early mathematics and different working memory components are investigated. In the first study, the relations between the Early Numeracy Test (ENT) and five working memory aspects have been studied in a correlational study with 240 kindergartners. The following working memory components can be distinguished: the central executive controlling system, the phonological component, and the visuospatial component. In this study, three distinctive executive functions were measured: inhibition, shifting, and planning. The results show that phonological working memory, shifting, and planning are highly related to children's early math competence. Together, these functions can explain 50% of the total variance in early math. In a second study under 111 kindergartners, it was found that the scores on the ENT are moderately related to the executive function planning. Contrary to the expectations, intelligence was more related to preparatory math skills than planning. However, in a short training study with 15 low performing children, it was found that children's planning scores could better predict their improvement than intelligence: children low in planning did not profit as much from the training as children with higher planning capacities. The results of these studies emphasize the need for further research on the relations between working memory processes and preparatory math skills. These processes seem to play an important role in the origin of math learning difficulties. The results of the second study also suggest that remediation of early math learning difficulties should be adapted according to children's cognitive profiles regarding working memory and executive functions.


Kroesbergen, E.H., Van de Rijt, B.A.M. and Van Luit, J.E.H. (2007), "Working Memory and Early Mathematics: Possibilities for Early Identification of Mathematics Learning Disabilities", Scruggs, T.E. and Mastropieri, M.A. (Ed.) International Perspectives (Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities, Vol. 20), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 1-19.



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