Underlying factors affect children's early reading and math achievement

Underlying individual and environmental factors may better explain inter-relations between children’s early reading and mathematics achievement, according to new research that fails to support prior work suggesting that increasing children’s math skills might help increase their reading skills.

Paul Morgan, Harry and Marion Eberly Fellow, professor of education and demography, and director of Penn State’s Center for Educational Disparities, explains that prior research indicating early math achievement predicts later reading achievement may have been influenced by other factors.

"We re-examined the bidirectional relations between reading and mathematics achievement using both traditional cross-lagged models and recent extensions intended to better account for possible confounding factors,” said Morgan. The research is forthcoming in Developmental Psychology.

The researchers analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which includes over 9,000 U.S. children from kindergarten to third grade. They found that estimated effects between reading and mathematics achievement differ substantially after accounting for unmeasured factors.

“The prior finding, that early mathematics predicts later reading achievement more strongly than early reading predicts later math achievement, disappears and sometimes reverses, suggesting that prior work may not be causally informative because of unmeasured factors,” Morgan said. “In some of the previous studies, it is difficult to know whether mathematics or reading knowledge, per se, is the 'active ingredient' leading to change in achievement in the other domain.”

The researchers theorized that there are similar underlying competencies needed for both reading and math achievement

“There is also the possibility that skill in one of these domains transfers strongly to skill in the other,” Morgan said. “Research suggests there is substantial overlap between cognitive processes involved in math and reading achievement, including non-verbal reasoning, working memory, and vocabulary.”

The researchers were unable to examine the inter-relations between mathematics and reading achievement beyond third grade. “In the future, we may consider a larger range of potential models for estimating causal effects of math and reading achievement on each other,” said Morgan.

The findings could influence which types of academic skills should be targeted for early intervention.

“Early screening and intervention efforts may be more effective if they incorporate factors for domain-general academic difficulties,” Morgan said.

Other researchers on the project were lead author Drew H. Bailey, associate professor of education, University California, Irvine; Yoonkyung Oh, assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; George Farkas, distinguished professor of education, University of California, Irvine; and Marianne Hillemeier, professor emerita of health policy and administration, Penn State.

Support was provided by a National Science Foundation grant.