Friday, February 10, 2017

Skills underlying mathematics: The role of executive function in the development of mathematics proficiency

Reading difficulties (poor literacy) are commonly associated with social and academic challenges. Only recently has the importance of math skills for economic well-being been recognized. Recent research suggests that numerical skills and more general cognitive processes like executive functions influence a child’s success in mathematics.  Executive functions (EF) refer to the cognitive processes that enable us to control and coordinate purposeful, goal-oriented thought and action. Three classes of EF have been identified: the ability to suppress distracting information (inhibition), the ability to think flexibly (shifting), and the ability to simultaneously hold and manipulate information (working memory). This paper reviewed the evidence linking executive functions and mathematic ability.
Correlational studies have consistently shown a relationship between working memory in mathematical performance across a range of age groups. What is particularly important is that this variance cannot be explained by other variables such as language skills, reading skills, or intelligence. Other studies have examined this relationship more directly, and shown that math performance declines when participants are engaged in working memory tasks. A small number of studies have attempted to train Executive Function skills to determine whether this will lead to improvements in learning mathematics. While training programs have been effective in enhancing working memory, there is currently no consistent evidence that they in turn improve mathematical achievement.
            Understanding the role of EF skills in mathematical performance is essential for parents and teachers. A greater awareness of the relationship between EF skills and learning mathematics may allow educators to better facilitate children’s learning and performance of mathematics in an academic environment.

Blogger: Natalie Pitch is an undergraduate currently completing her honours thesis in psychology under the supervision of Lisa Archibald

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Working Memory in Children with Learning Disabilities in Reading Versus Spelling: Searching for Overlapping and Specific Cognitive Factors

The written language (orthography) of English is considered opaque because the letters in a word don’t always correspond to the sounds of that word when spoken. Of course, the word ‘AND’ is transparent: It has three letters, each of which correspond as expected to the common sounds those letters make. But, the word ‘WERE’ is opaque: The letters don’t correspond all that well to the sounds in the spoken word. There are lots of these ‘irregular words’ in English writing, so English orthography is considered opaque. Importantly, opaque orthographies are difficult to read because the words on the page don’t always predict the sounds in the word, AND spell because the sounds you want to write might correspond to different possible letter patterns. As would be expected, then, many studies demonstrate that English children who have difficulty reading, also have difficulty spelling.

German orthography, on the other hand, is considered transparent because the letters in the written words correspond well to the sounds of that word when spoken. That makes reading easier: You can sound out the corresponding sounds in the written word to decode the word. Nevertheless, there can be different ways to spell a sound in German (e.g., /ee/ can be spelled ‘ee’ or ‘eh’). As a result, spelling requires more processing of the individual sounds in a word, or more phonological processing.  Branderburg et al. reasoned that reading and spelling problems may not always co-occur in German children, and that different impairments might be associated with different cognitive processes.

The researchers compared the performance of 3rd grade children with either reading disorder, spelling disorder, reading and spelling disorder, or no reading and spelling disorder (control group) on measures tapping phonological processing (short-term memory; speaking rate) or working memory (the ability to store and process phonological information). The results revealed phonological short-term memory impairments in children with spelling disorder compared to the control group, and working memory impairments in children with reading disorder compared to the control group.

The results provide further support for the important role of phonological processing in supporting literacy, especially when there is some ambiguity in the correspondence between letters and sounds. The findings also highlight the cognitive demands of reading possibly related to supporting reading comprehension processes.

Blogger: Lisa Archibald

Friday, December 16, 2016

The role of syntax in encoding and recall of pictoral narratives: Evidence from specific language impairment

Before an event can be recalled, it must be encoded and stored in memory. We know from previous research that the better new information is integrated with other information, the better it is encoded and the easier it is to recall later on. It is thought that in narratives, story events can be integrated by identifying temporal or causal relationships between them, or by identifying characters’ motivations (psychological causation). However, to speak about these relationships, the child telling the story must be able to use a certain level of syntactic complexity. Specifically, speaking about temporal or causal relationships often requires the use of subordination. For example, in the sentences “We got lost twice before we arrived at the hotel” and “Sheila tripped because Murray left the rake on the lawn,” two events are joined by subordinating conjunctions, “before” and “because.” In contrast, talking about characters’ motivations requires the use of mental state terms, like “think” and “try,” or complement clauses. In this context a complement is a phrase that completes the meaning of the verb, acting like an object of the verb. In the sentence, “They knew she was involved” the phrase “she was involved” is the complement of the verb “knew.” With this in mind, Bishop and Donlan hypothesized that children with poor syntactic ability would have difficulty recalling stories not necessarily because of poor understanding of causal connections, but because of limited facility with these syntactic structures.

Using two series of five pictures each, the authors collected two narratives from three groups of participants: typically developing children, children with expressive specific language impairment (SLI-E) and children with receptive and expressive SLI (SLI-R). Thirty minutes after the children generated the initial narratives, they were asked to recall both of them. Both initial and recalled narratives were coded for content, whereas initial narratives were coded further for syntax (mean length of utterance and coding for clause type) and inclusion of mental state terms. All children completed measures of nonverbal reasoning and vocabulary, and children with SLI completed additional assessments of language ability and general comprehension.

Analysis of the initial narratives showed that both SLI groups produced shorter and grammatically simpler stories than the control group, however only the SLI-R group used simpler clause structure and fewer mental state terms than controls. Examination of the recalled narratives in light of the initial narrative showed that the SLI-R group forgot disproportionately more of the story content than did the other two groups. Correlational analyses found that positive predictors of content in recalled narratives included complement clauses, subordinate clauses, mental state terms, and general comprehension. No correlation was found for nonverbal reasoning or vocabulary. The authors use these results to support the hypothesis that structural language ability to a greater extent than nonverbal reasoning contributes to encoding and therefore recall of narratives.

Blogger: Laura Pauls is a PhD student in Speech & Language Science, researching children with language impairment and/or working memory impairment.