News Education

Thursday 21 August 2014

It all adds up – why you can be good at maths and English

John von Radowitz

Published 09/07/2014 | 02:30

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About half the genes that influence how well a child can read also shape their number-crunching ability, a study has found. Thinkstock Images
About half the genes that influence how well a child can read also shape their number-crunching ability, a study has found. Thinkstock Images

The idea that children are good with either numbers or words but not both has been exposed as a myth after the traits were found to be controlled by many of the same genes.

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People often claim to have a way with words but no aptitude for maths, or vice versa, but many of the same genes underpin both traits, research has shown.

About half the genes that influence how well a child can read also shape their number-crunching ability, a study has found. The discovery suggests that while maths and reading skills are known to run in families, the picture is more complex than simply being born with a head for words or numbers.

Nurture – in other words, home life and schooling – has a major role to play as well nature, despite the importance of genetics on literacy and numeracy.

Lead researcher Professor Robert Plomin, from King's College London, said: "Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences.

"Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult – heritability does not imply that anything is set in stone. It just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring that child up to speed."

Scientists used data from the Twins Early Development Study (Teds) to analyse the effects of genetics on the reading and maths performance of 12-year-olds from 2,800 families.

Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered maths questions based on the UK curriculum.

Combining the test results with DNA data showed a substantial overlap in the genetic variants that influence mathematics and reading.

Dr Oliver Davis, another member of the team from University College London, said: "We looked at this question in two ways, by comparing the similarity of thousands of twins, and by measuring millions of tiny differences in their DNA.

"Both analyses show that similar collections of subtle DNA differences are important for reading and maths. However, it's also clear just how important our life experience is in making us better at one or the other. It's this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are."

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, did not point to specific high-impact genes linked to literacy or numeracy. Rather, it suggested that genetic influence on learning ability – or disability – involved many genes, each contributing a very small effect.

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