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Do we really understand math learning disabilities?

Mathematical ability affects the quality of an individual's daily life and employment quality. It is a common difficulty for individuals with learning disabilities, but compared to reading disabilities, mathematics learning disabilities (MLD) are less studied. What is the focus of research on MLD? What are the needs in special education? What is the difference between the current situation of domestic research and the trend of international research? It is worth examining and referring to those who are interested in the topic of MLD.

Our research findings show that research on MLD in Taiwan broadly includes two themes: the identification and the intervention. The number of studies indicates that how to teach students with MLD is of greater concern. The gap between studies funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and journal articles in the concept of MLD reflects the fact that most journal articles have neglected the international trend in identification, and that target research participants may differ from the contemporary definition, making comparisons difficult. Although there is a focus on teaching, more empirical research evidence needs to be accumulated, such as the research on teaching core competencies, or the need to clarify the relevant linguistic factors associated with the performance and teaching of mathematical word problems. This study not only provides us with a research picture of MLD, but also serves as a basis for future research directions in Taiwan.

Mathematics learning disabilities (MLD) are common problems for many students with disabilities. Mathematical skills are applied in a wide variety of ways, including school, employment, home life, leisure life, community involvement, emotional and physical health, as well as personal responsibility and relationships. This highlights the long-term costs of living for people with mathematical difficulties. However, there is little research on MLD compared with that on reading disabilities.

What domestic research focuses on MLD? What are the needs in the field? What are the differences between domestic and international research? The international literature on MLD represents the cumulative results of research in this area, which is recent and representative. The domestic literature reflects the interpretation and understanding of MLD. Therefore, the research team used the international research results as a framework and trend to compare the domestic research and to conduct argumentation.

The research team conducted a two-stage data search. In the first phase, the team examined studies published in academic journals. Due to the small number of studies and the divergent research methods, we referred to the criticisms to systematic review in educational research. It is believed that the publication of journal articles represents the content and methods that draw attention in this field. Non-empirical article does not add new knowledge, or fails to validate the claims of past research, but it does serve the function of information transmission and reflects the issues of concern in the field at a particular time and space. In order to understand the initial picture of the research on MLD in the past 20 years, to avoid systematic bias, and to highlight the current situation and problems of knowledge delivery of MLD in Taiwan, the research team included non-empirical papers in the analysis, which yielded to a total of 26 studies. Additionally, considering the fact that the proportion of non-empirical studies in Chinese journals was high and there were relevant studies that have not been published in journals, we conducted the second stage of the data search in order to keep the review close to the current research situation of MLD in Taiwan and then included 14 research projects funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in the same period.

It was found that the domestic research consisted of two themes of the identification and the intervention. The number of intervention studies was higher than that of identification studies, showing that the teaching for students with MLD received more attention in the field. However, empirical research was limited, and studies using contemporary evidence related to neuropsychology or cognitive deficit were even rarer. The evolution and the change of the concept of MLD can be found in research funded by MOST. Nevertheless, most journal articles still adopted the discrepancy criterion referring to MLD. This conceptual gap reflects that most journal articles have neglected international definition and research trends in exploring MLD, and the research participants may differ from contemporary definitions and are difficult to compare. Additionally, the empirical intervention studies regarding basic math skills for students with MLD were very few. Of the eight MOST intervention studies, only one examined the basic arithmetic skills. Of the 18 intervention studies published in journal articles, only five studies were empirical intervention studies. The five studies examined the effects of interventions which integrated multimedia technology, metacognitive strategies, and schematic representation strategies on mathematics word problems. Although the domestic intervention research shows the focal interest on the mathematics word problems, the relevant language-processing factors received insufficient recognition and clarification.

It is obviously that there is a need for 'how to teach' and 'what to teach' in special education practice. This study suggests that the intervention studies should return to and link with brain neurology as well as cognitive psychology research because the association between intervention and individual cognitive process also needs to be examined with evidence. It also recommends that the intervention for students with MLD and the instruction for those with low achievement should be investigated with a distinction.


Li-Yu Hung Professor | Department of Special Education

Dr. Li-Yu Hung is a professor in the Department of Special Education at the National Taiwan Normal University. She is also the dean of the College of Teacher Education at NTNU. Her research expertise includes emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, assessment of special needs, and behavioral support.

Hsuan-Hui Wang Doctoral candidate | Department of Special Education

Hsuan-Hui Wang is now pursuing her Ph.D. in Special Education at the National Taiwan Normal University. Prior to her doctoral program, she worked for eight years as a teacher and section chief of special education in secondary education. Her current research interests include learning disabilities, reading disabilities, and developing evidence-based interventions for struggling readers.