The Case for STEM: New Study Shows Reading and Math Skills are More Intertwined Than We Ever Imagined
By Wendy Hinote Lanier
In general, writers are readers. Most of us have libraries of books in our favorite genres. And because we are children’s writers, a good portion of our personal libraries are probably children’s books. We’ve supported reading programs and cheerfully declared “Readers are leaders!” for decades. And as it turns out, we were more right than we knew!
A new study (2021) conducted at the University of Buffalo has made some surprising discoveries about how the cooperative areas of the brain responsible for reading skill are also at work during unrelated activities. These unrelated activities include math. Who knew?
In previous studies, Christopher McNorgan (PhD and assistant professor of psychology at UB) had successfully identified a biomarker for ADHD. In 2021 he took on a new study to explore the possibility of identifying children with dyslexia based on how the brain is wired for reading. As with the previous study, he used a novel deep learning approach through neuroimaging and computational modeling.
After the first set of data McNorgan had identified dyslexia in 14 good readers and 14 poor readers with 94% accuracy. But to determine if his findings could be generalized, he chose a math study which included a mental multiplication task to measure the functional connectivity from the second set of data. Functional connectivity is a description of how the brain is virtually wired from moment to moment. It changes depending on the task at hand.
McNorgan was shocked to discover that, even though his test subjects were involved in different tasks (language and math), the connectivity fingerprint was the same! And he was able to identify dyslexia with 94% accuracy whether testing reading or math.
“These results show that the way our brain is wired for reading is actually influencing how the brain functions for math,” says McNorgan. “That says your reading skill is going to affect how you tackle problems in other domains and helps us better understand children with difficulties in both reading and math.”
What this tells us is the development of early math and reading skills are intertwined. If the same pathways of the brain are being used, it stands to reason we can improve both by using opportunities to teach math and reading together. Engaging in “math talk,” telling stories, and reading books with math (and other STEM concepts) are great ways to promote the development of math and reading skills.
For the last couple of years, we’ve seen a greater emphasis on STEM books. As nonfiction writers we already knew they were important for kids. Now we have some hard scientific evidence that integrating STEM topics in our work has an even greater impact than we first imagined. That means the work we do can help kids be successful at reading and math and possibly other areas, too. Isn’t that the best?
For me personally, this comes as great news since my newest picture book is a math-based tale about number doubles and days of the week. Too Many Pigs in the Pool (Sleeping Bear Press, April 2022) is informational fiction, but I’m loving the idea that although reading and math are very different tasks, they use the same functional networks in the brain. Score!! I think we nonfiction writers suspected this all along. Now we have proof!
McNorgan, Chris. "The Connectivity Fingerprints of Highly-Skilled and Disordered Reading Persist Across Cognitive Domains." Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience 15 (2021). doi:10.3389/fncom.2021.590093.
 University at Buffalo. "Read to Succeed -- in Math; Study Shows How Reading Skill Shapes More Than Just Reading." ScienceDaily. Last modified March 11, 2021. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210311142044.htm.
 Harris, Barbara, and Dana Peterson. Developing Math Skills in Early Childhood. Mathematica-MPR.com, 2017. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED587415.pdf.
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.