SLI and Numeracy

Difficulties faced by individuals within the area of literacy; reading, comprehension, writing and spelling, are well recognised by teachers and in most cases are prioritised for intervention.  Numeracy is more often than not perceived as a strength for students with SLI and as such it does receive less attention.  Relatively it may seem so.  Specific skills such as small number labelling or using a procedure to solve written equations may be learnt at an age appropriate level, however, as language involvement increases and concepts shift from the concrete to the abstract often individuals with SLI will be less successful than there same age peers in all areas of numeracy (Cowan & Donlan, 2005).

It is not difficult to see why an individual with SLI will require additional support to reach their potential within numeracy.  Put aside the curriculum content (and there is much of it to put aside) and look into the expectations for communicating and thinking mathematically that are as vital part as any when considering one becoming ‘competent’ within the learning area of mathematics.   Within the proficiency strands ACARA outlines statements for understanding, fluency, problem solving and reasoning.  Of these areas much time is required to consolidate understanding and fluency of core mathematical strands, however, the skills included within problem solving; ‘ability to make choices, interpret, formulate, model and investigate problem situations, and communicate effectively’, and reasoning; ‘analysing, proving, evaluating, explaining, inferring, justifying, generalising and comparing and contrasting ’ are in my observations often not included within individual units of work (ACARA, 2014).

Curriculum coverage was considered as one of the potential key factors for differing results achieved by primary aged individuals within a study published in 2005.  Although logically it seems there would be a link between the amount of learning content delivered and the ability to be more successful across a range of numeracy skills, in this study “there was no relation between curriculum coverage and maths skills in the SLI group.” (Cowan & Donlan, 2005).  What was identified as contributing factors towards numeracy success was working memory and counting skills (Cowan & Donlan, 2005).   In a later study published in 2011 other factors were explored to explain the difficulties encountered by pre-school aged children.  These included precursor skills for numeracy including naming speed (automaticity), phonological awareness and grammar.  Of these and other skills assessed the study did uncover that confirmed that “children with SLI perform worse on verbal early numeracy tasks, but do not differ on nonverbal tasks”(Kleemans,2011)  It also highlighted that “there seems to be a crucial role of naming speed in predicting verbal early numeracy skills in children with SLI” (Kleemans,2011)

Think back to the problem solving and reasoning skills required of primary and secondary aged children as they progress throughout the mathematics curriculum.  These are language heavy skills that are more often than not expressed using written or verbal output.  As identified within the 2011 study verbal skill deficits present early and could be observed as a contributing factor towards difficulties faced at later stages of schooling.  As the research shows there is much to consider when teaching numeracy to an individual with SLI.  I consider how mathematics is taught, how is it assessed and how it used in everyday life.  We require efficient naming speed to use numbers in everyday situations such as monetary transaction; however, we also require working memory capacity to manipulate this information.  Strong foundations in understanding and fluency will support the individual in this situation, but what if the context changes, multiple options are presented, or there is a requirement to justify why you’ve been overcharged.  There is no disputing that an individual with SLI will encounter challenges and will require additional support for mathematics throughout schooling.  This support does not only need to be in the form of individualised intervention and strategies for identified needs.  Due to the complex needs faced by individuals with SLI adjustments must also at the classroom and assessment level to ensure they are provided with an equal academic playing field.


Ben Tuni – Outreach: Teacher



ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (n.d.). The Australian curriculum: Mathematics Organisation. Retrieved on 14th May 2014 from

Cowan, R., Donlan, C., Newton, E. J., & Lloyd, D. (2005). Number skills and knowledge in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 732–744.

Kleemans, T., Segers, E., Verhoeven, L,. (2011). Precursors to numeracy in kindergartners with specific language impairment. Research in Developmental Disabilities 32 (2011) 2901–2908

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