I almost skipped a continuing education opportunity on Saturday morning. Between the chance to sleep in on a Saturday and the time change to daylight savings time overnight into Sunday, I relished the extra couple of hours of sleep I might grab. I’m so very glad I attended my North Suburban Speech and Language Association workshop instead! I spent a very worthwhile three hours learning about the important role we speech-language pathologists can play supporting our students in math. Math? Yes, math!
I have used word finding cues occasionally with some of the multi-syllable words like isosceles, perpendicular, and circumference. But I didn’t pay much attention to the huge language foundation that underlies mathematics, and the scaffolding we can provide to ensure that our language-impaired students aren’t penalized because of their disability.
Karen Tzanetopoulos, M.S., CCC-SLP, presented on the topic, “The Abstract Language of Math and How the SLP Can Help.” Karen is an SLP in the Chicago area who is in private practice. In the course of her research, she met with over 130 teachers, math specialists, and administrators around the country and found a crying need for help in teaching math to children with dyslexia and language learning differences. Her passion for this topic led her to pursue (and receive!) National Science Foundation grants.
One of Karen’s primary points was that although math exists without language, in order to communicate about math, we must use language. English, in particular, is full of homophones and complex, abstract terms that can be particularly confusing: One, won, to, too, two, for, four, fore are just a start. Even the names we have for numbers are phonologically complex (three, six, seven). Whereas children in China learn numbers whose sound has a correlation with its meaning, we have words like “eleven” and “thirteen” which don’t correspond to base 10. Think of how difficult it is for a child with auditory discrimination or processing difficulties to understand that “fourth” is different from “four”, and “four” has nothing to do with “for” or “fore.”
Karen stressed the value of developing a mental number line so one can develop a number sense. In her words, every child should have “extensive experience with physical number lines and practice counting and performing calculations on real number lines.” She starts with concrete, physical number lines, then moves on to paper. Only later can a child develop a mental number line. Without number sense, kids have no clue when their answers make no sense. So what does this have to do with word finding?
Just like rapid, automatic naming is a strong indicator of reading success, early accuracy and speed of number naming and counting fluency are strongly correlated with math success. We need to work on counting with preschoolers. Count, count, count: count on fingers, slow it down, make it meaningful. Make it concrete and visual. Counting needs to become automatic. Then we can move on to those tricky position and quantity words. Think about how confusing “follows” is. If you follow someone, you are behind that person, right? But in math, if I ask for “the number that follows 7″ I am asking for the one that comes after it, but “ahead” of it in the left-to-right demands of reading. The language of math is very complex! And take a look at these numbers:
Which number is larger?
Then we get to math facts, which have a heavy phonological burden and require quick word retrieval. Karen stressed remembering a hierarchy from concrete to representational to abstract teaching. Start with concrete teaching of numbers and number facts. Use manipulatives; let kids experiment and discover how numbers are related. Help them find the patterns. Remember that we use many words to say the same thing. For example, in addition, we might say plus, add, all together, altogether, total, both, sum, and in all, increased by, combined, added to, or additional. In subtraction, we might say minus, subtract, take away, less than, remain, left, lost, reduce, how much more, how much less, or nearer. Yikes! No wonder kids get confused.
We haven’t even begun to talk about multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals. This is only a start. Karen had so much great information to share! Hopefully I have given you food for thought (oooh, boy, another idiom) and a starting point to think about the important role you play in supporting math for kids with language difficulties.
Please send me your comments or questions. You can also reach out to Karen directly via her email: firstname.lastname@example.org. She would be happy to hear from you! I hope to follow up with some of your questions and her responses in future posts.