As the end of the school year approaches, everyone is preparing for final exams and looking forward to a much-needed break over the summer. But, perhaps for you, as you watch your child struggle in the area of Math, you are concerned as to what summer may look like. You dread having to continue to drill math facts to prevent a loss of skill over the summer months. Or, perhaps you are wondering what the outcome of the Math final will be, and you are anxious about opening the email of the grade reports, to see if your child will even pass his current Math class. Has Math always been this difficult for your child? Have you noticed an increase in difficulty since moving past the days of rote memorization of math facts? Perhaps there is something deeper. Perhaps there is a link between the difficulty your child is having in Math and his underlying spoken language system.
Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at the correlation between spoken language development and the Language of Math. We have seen how, in so many different areas, kids who struggle with developing spoken language may also have trouble learning the Language of Math. We have considered vocabulary development and sentence structure. Today we will consider the areas of phonology (speech sounds) and morphology (the meaningful units of language). I will first describe and define these two aspects of spoken language a little bit better, to clarify how these areas pertain to spoken language development.
Phonology is our system of speech sounds. As a child learns to make speech sounds, he creates a repertoire of sounds that he will later combine to create spoken words. A child experiments with gurgles and babbles and coos, as he figures out how to make various sounds with his mouth. As development continues, the child begins to put sounds together to form words. For example, he learns that an “m” sound, followed by a long “e” sound, represents the word, “me,” and that represents the child, or at this stage anything that belongs to that child.
Morphology is a fancy name for meaningful units of language. The “units” can be in the form of single words (e.g., boat, car, apple, house), or they can be in the form of single sounds. For example, the “ed” added to the end of a verb creates a new meaning. Now, that verb with the “ed” attached is telling us that the action has already happened – that it happened in the past. So, that “ed” is what we would call a morpheme, or a meaningful unit of language. There are many of these “morphemes.” I will give you some more examples to help you recognize them in spoken language. The morpheme “ing” added to a verb tells us that the action is occurring right now (e.g., He is playing). The morpheme “ly” helps to describe an action, and tell how something is done (e.g., He walked slowly). The morpheme “s” added to a single noun changes the meaning to show that there are now more than one (e.g., apples).
Although there is not a wealth of research that specifically looks at the affects of these two areas of spoken language on Math learning, I wonder if we can make some assumptions, based on what we know about how these areas may affect learning in general.
In terms of phonology, or the speech sound system, it is widely known that children who have difficulty developing their spoken speech sound system are likely to have difficulty learning to read and write. If this is true, we can assume that performing Math problems, particularly word problems or those that require a lot of reading, could present problems for these children. Additionally, any speech sounds that are problematic for a child could affect the production of the oral math problem solving, as well. For example, a child who has difficulty producing “s” or “z” may have trouble when orally, or verbally, rehearsing or producing math problems that contain number words containing these sounds (e.g., seven, equals, etc.) If nothing else, the difficulty in speech sound production simply adds one more component that the child’s brain must work through, or contend with, while also trying to decipher the meaning of the problem and compute an answer.
In terms of morphology, we addressed this some when we looked at the vocabulary of Math. We learned that certainly Math has its own vocabulary, or units of meaning. Certain words mean things in the realm of Math, that are different than their meanings in the spoken language system. We also have new meanings in Math. For example, the meaning of “square root,” is very different in Math than the traditional meaning of either “square” or “root.”
Once again, we see that the Language of Math is complex. We also see that children with underlying difficulties in their spoken language system are coming into the learning process with many other variables. At each stage of the game, we have to assume that these children are viewing Math learning and the Language of Math through the same lens with which they view spoken language development. We have to assume that what is difficult for them in spoken language development may also likely be difficult in learning the Language of Math. We must support their math learning in ways that are very similar to how we support their learning in other academic arenas. The next blog will focus on the correlation between pragmatics and Math learning. The final blog of this series will offer some practical ways that you can help support your Math -learner. Please post questions or comments. I would love to dialog with you about specific concerns you have as a parent or educator, as well as hear about specific problems your child may be having. We can brainstorm about how their difficulties could be related to underlying spoken language difficulties. Thanks for reading!