Students with math difficulties vs. students with math and reading difficulties

iStock_000009823907XSmallSome students do poorly in math but perform well in reading, while others perform poorly in both reading and math. A recent study in the Journal of Learning Disabilities says these 2 groups of students should be considered as different subgroups of math difficulty based on testing of 327 3rd graders.

Researchers found that students with mathematics difficulty only (MD) performed differently on a set of 14 word problems than students with MD in combination with reading difficulties (MDRD). The 14 word problems included 3 problem types (total, difference or change) and sentences with missing information in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd positions.

For MDRD students, total problems were easier than difference problems. For MD students, change problems were easier than difference and total problems.

“In fact, given MDRD students’ language difficulties, it is possible that higher performance on total problems may be due simply to MDRD students’ tendency to add in the face of word problems, regardless of the structure of those narratives,” the researchers write. “What is more surprising is that MD-only students performed comparably on total and difference problem and found change problems to be reliably easier than total and difference problems.

 “Superior performance on change problems suggests that MD-only students are attending to problem narratives either with greater attention or with greater understanding than their MDRD peers.”

Researchers found no clear pattern in how the different groups–MD, MDRD or no MD–performed in the problems with different missing information. All types of students had more difficulties with problems that had missing information in the 1st and 2nd positions. Teachers typically focus instruction on problems with missing information in the 3rd position and should spend more time on the more challenging problems with missing information in the 1st and 2nd positions, the researchers say.

Their study supports differentiating interventions for the 2 MD subgroups, MD only and MDMR, the researchers conclude.

“Do Word-Problem Features Differentially Affect Problem Difficulty as a Function of Students’ Mathematics Difficulty With and Without Reading Difficulty? By Sarah Powell, Lynn Fuchs, Douglas Fuchs et al, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 42, Number 2, March/April 2009, Pps. 99-110.

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