The language of mathematics: Investigating the ways language counts for children's mathematical development

Rose K. Vukovic, Nonie K. Lesaux

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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This longitudinal study examined how language ability relates to mathematical development in a linguistically and ethnically diverse sample of children from 6 to 9. years of age. Study participants were 75 native English speakers and 92 language minority learners followed from first to fourth grades. Autoregression in a structural equation modeling (SEM) framework was used to evaluate the relation between children's language ability and gains in different domains of mathematical cognition (i.e., arithmetic, data analysis/probability, algebra, and geometry). The results showed that language ability predicts gains in data analysis/probability and geometry, but not in arithmetic or algebra, after controlling for visual-spatial working memory, reading ability, and sex. The effect of language on gains in mathematical cognition did not differ between language minority learners and native English speakers. These findings suggest that language influences how children make meaning of mathematics but is not involved in complex arithmetical procedures whether presented with Arabic symbols as in arithmetic or with abstract symbols as in algebraic reasoning. The findings further indicate that early language experiences are important for later mathematical development regardless of language background, denoting the need for intensive and targeted language opportunities for language minority and native English learners to develop mathematical concepts and representations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)227-244
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported, in part, by challenge grants to Rose K. Vukovic from New York University and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and by a William T. Grant Foundation Scholars Award granted to Nonie K. Lesaux. The authors thank the participating principals, teachers, and students. Thanks also go to research assistants Chelsea Ziesig, Steven Roberts, Sean Bailey, Tyra Bailey, Candace Barriteau, Justin Bennett, Catherine Box, Karen Chaney, Rachel Harari, Sarah Klevan, Margaret Mahoney, Sonia Park, Melissa Perez, Christine Rosalia, Eric Shafarman, Maggie Vukovic, and Tanisha Young. Finally, special thanks also go to Michael J. Kieffer for help with data analysis.

Copyright 2014 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Language
  • Language minority learners
  • Longitudinal
  • Mathematical cognition
  • Mathematical development
  • Mathematics difficulty


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