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Math Learning Disabilities Linked to Poor 'Gut Sense' of Numbers

WEDNESDAY, June 22 (HealthDay News) -- A poor "gut sense" of numbers may be a sign of a math learning disability, a new study suggests.

Researchers had 71 ninth graders enrolled in a 10-year study of math achievement perform tasks that measured their innate sense of numbers, such as asking them to guess how many dots were on a page without having time to actually count them.

Researchers also divided the students into four groups: those shown to have a math learning disability over the course of the decade-long study, those ranked below average, average or above average in math achievement.

Students who had a math learning disability did significantly worse at estimating how many dots were on the page.

"Some children have a remarkably imprecise intuitive sense of numbers, and we believe these children have math learning disability, at least in part, due to deficits in this intuitive type of number sense," Michele Mazzocco, director of the Math Skills Development Project at Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a news release from the institute.

The study is published in the June 17 issue of Child Development.

Although they do well in other subjects, up to 14 percent of school-aged children have continuing trouble with math. There can be multiple causes, including issues with spatial reasoning, working memory or "number sense," which includes the ability to approximate numbers.

"A key message for parents and teachers is that children vary in the precision of their intuitive sense of numbers. We might take for granted that every child perceives numbers with roughly comparable precision, but this assumption would be false. Some students may need more practice, or different kinds of practice, to develop this number sense," noted Mazzocco.

"At the same time, if a child is struggling with mathematics at school, we should not assume that the child's difficulty is tied to a poor number sense; this is just one possibility," she added.

More information

The Learning Disabilities Association of America provides more information on math learning disability.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: Kennedy Krieger Institute, news release, June 17, 2011

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