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Genetic link found between reading and maths ability in children

14 July 2014

By Michelle Downes

Appeared in BioNews 762

Around half of the genes that influence reading ability are also involved in mathematical aptitude, a study has found.

The study looked at 12-year-old children from nearly 2,800 British families. By comparing the reading and maths ability of twins with sets of children who were not genetically related, they found that there was a 'substantial overlap in the genetic variants' influencing both skills.

These findings may help to explain why some children acquire academic skills with greater ease than others and also dispel the idea that mathematics and reading are two separate skills with no overlap.

Professor Robert Plomin, from King's College London, senior author on the study, said that 'children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning, and we need to recognise, and respect, these individual differences'.

But the researchers also maintained that environment plays a huge role, saying that a supportive learning environment will give some children the opportunity to overcome any genetically predetermined gaps in literacy or numeracy acquisition.

'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'.

First author on the study, Dr Oliver Davis from University College London, said: 'It's this complex interplay of nature and nurture as we grow up that shapes who we are'.

The researchers tested the children's reading comprehension and fluency skills as well as mathematical skills, based on the UK curriculum.

The study, which used data from the Twins Early Development Study, did not pinpoint any specific genes linked to literacy or numeracy, but rather suggests that a genetic predisposition for these complex traits and associated disorders are caused by subtle differences in many different genes.

Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education told the BBC: 'Until researchers are able to identify the specific genes that are thought to influence children's reading and math skills, and show that such associations are robust in numerous academic studies, then such work has little relevance for public policy'.

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