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The Relationship Between Phonology and Mathematics

What Determines a First Grader’s Success


HSE researchers have shown that a child’s phonological abilities (including sensitivity to the sound composition of speech and the ability to identify individual sounds and syllables) are connected with mathematical aptitude in elementary school. However, the relationship between sound speech sensitivity and the development of mathematics varies depending on the socio-economic status of the child’s family.

The results of the study have been published in the preprint, ‘The Effect of Phonological Ability on Math is Modulated by Socioeconomic Status in Elementary School’.

According to many researchers, mathematical skills are key to academic success in the hard and natural sciences. Strong mathematical skills are considered crucial for academic pursuits and professional development in the sphere of science and technology. This is why many educational studies are aimed at identifying early cognitive predictors (prognostic parameters) of mathematical aptitude in children. These studies make it possible to identify children who will struggle with math and, in turn, develop possible programmes to help them.

In examining the preconditions for mathematical aptitude, many researchers identify non-specific (general) cognitive predictors and specific predictors (those that effect mathematical skills only). For example, common cognitive abilities include intelligence or working memory. These are the factors that are associated with educational achievements in any field, be it math, reading, or a foreign language. Specific mathematical predictors include knowledge of numbers, understanding of their sequencing, and spatial abilities, for example. In this classification, phonological abilities are considered predictors for reading.

Broadly speaking, phonological abilities refer to one’s sensitivity to the sound structure of speech. More specifically, it can refer to any of the following three components of phonological abilities: phonological awareness, i.e., the ability to recognise and use individual speech sounds, phonological memory, and lexical access.

More recently, it has been hypothesised that phonological abilities are also important for mathematical aptitude. When solving word problems, for example, the ability to translate visual information into auditory information and vice versa comes into play. In addition, as a few studies have shown, phonological awareness is necessary for performing mathematical operations that involve extracting facts from long-term memory, such as addition and multiplication. Moreover, solving mathematical problems requires the use of working memory — one of the elements of which is the phonological loop, where information is stored in auditory format.

The phonological loop is a component of working memory that is involved in the processing of auditory information. With the help of the phonological loop, words to be memorised are ‘articulated’ in an internal voice.

At the same time, it has remained unclear whether phonological abilities are directly related to mathematical achievements, or if this connection can be explained by the fact that children with higher levels of phonological abilities are better at reading. This, in turn, gives those children an advantage in solving word problems.

With a sample of 2,948 first-graders, the study conducted by researchers at the HSE Center of Education Quality Monitoring has become one of the most extensive studies on the connection between phonological abilities and mathematical aptitude in first-graders. The researchers measured the first-graders’ phonological abilities and mathematical aptitude twice – once at the beginning of the school year (October 2017) and again at the end (May 2018).

In order to assess the pupils’ mathematical aptitude, the researchers used the Russian-language version of the tool, iPIPS (International Performance Indicator in Primary School), which was adapted and validated in 2013-2015.

To measure the children’s phonological abilities, the researchers had them perform two types of tasks. The first involved phonological memory. The child was told either a real word or a fictitious word, and she had to repeat it quickly. The second task involved phonological awareness. The child had to choose a word that rhymed with the provided word among four choices.

Tasks measuring the children’s mathematical aptitude involved addition and subtraction of two-digit numbers and word problems. Also evaluated was the ability to correctly name two-, three-, and four-digit numbers that were presented visually.

In addition, the participants’ reading speed and reading comprehension were considered.

The researchers also examined the socio-economic status (SES) of the child’s family. Previous studies have shown that children with low SES perform more poorly in both math and reading. Researchers used the level (or absence) of the child’s mother’s higher education, as well as the number of books present in the family home, as indicators of SES.

The researchers also took into account students’ possible bilingualism. Since the study was conducted in Kazan, some of the children, according to their parents, spoke Tatar at home, while they used Russian at school.

The results of the study showed that children with a higher level of phonological abilities performed more highly in mathematics. At the same time, the connection of phonological abilities with mathematical aptitude remains significant even when taking into account reading skills and knowledge of numbers. This reflects the independent impact of phonological abilities on a child’s mathematical aptitude.

First-graders from families in which mothers had higher education showed better results at the beginning of the school year and made higher progress during the year. Meanwhile, indicators of cultural capital (the number of books in the child’s home and knowledge of a second language) had no effect on the mathematical aptitude of children at the beginning and the end of the year.

Meanwhile, it was found that the relationship of phonological abilities with mathematical aptitude differs for children with different SES. For children from families with a large number of books at home, this connection was higher than for children who had fewer books at home. This may indicate a higher involvement of phonological processes in solving mathematical problems. Previous studies have shown that families with higher rates of cultural capital are characterised by a higher level of verbal interaction within the family, a higher frequency of reading books, and other verbal activity. It is possible that children raised in such families are better trained to operate with words, including numbers, in comparison with children with lower indicators of cultural capital.

The same goes for bilingual children. In children who spoke a second language at home, a closer link was found between their phonological abilities and their mathematical aptitude.

The results yielded by the study may have practical use. Firstly, the development of phonological abilities could be taken into account when planning various developmental programmes for mathematics in elementary school or pre-school programmes. Secondly, in programmes that aim to reduce the gap in mathematical aptitude between children of different SES, it is necessary to take into account that children of low SES have lower phonological abilities and use phonological resources to a lesser extent. Thus, for these children it is necessary to use visual ways of presenting information and instructions more often.


Study authors:
Yulia Kuzmina, Research Fellow, Center of Education Quality Monitoring, National Research University Higher School of Economics
Alina Ivanova, Junior Researcher, Center of Education Quality Monitoring, HSE
Diana Kaiky, Research Assistant at the Center of Education Quality Monitoring, HSE
Author: Alena Tarasova, March 04, 2019