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Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, for Brain Fact Friday and episode #139 on “The Fascinating Discoveries that Link Math, Literacy and the Brain Together.”

I’m Andrea Samadi, author and educator from Toronto, Canada, now living in the United States, and like many of our listeners, have been fascinated with learning and understanding the science behind high performance strategies in our schools, sports, and modern workplaces of the future. If you have been listening to our podcast, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with an understanding of our brain.

Our goal with this podcast is to bring the most current neuroscience research to you and make it applicable in your life whether you are a teacher in the classroom, a parent homeschooling, or using these ideas to improve productivity and results in your workplace. The idea is that these strategies will give you a new angle and provide you with a new way of looking at learning, results and productivity, with the brain in mind. As I am researching and uncovering new ideas, I’m also implementing them myself, and making connections to past speakers, so that we can all benefit from the research that is emerging in this new field of educational neuroscience.

I want to thank the listeners who have sent me messages through social media[i] about how you are using these ideas in your schools, community and personal lives. It does help to know that these episodes are useful, and how you are using this information, and that it’s not just me who finds the intricacies of the brain and learning to be fascinating.  Thanks so much for the messages.

Back to this week’s Brain Fact Friday.


There is a test called the finger gnosis test[ii] (a child holds their fingers under the table and has to tell you which fingers you touch) and “this test is a strong predictor of future mathematical ability” (Dr. Ansari taught us this in our last episode) and that “finger movement and counting are closely associated with the brain?” (David Sousa).

David A Sousa in his book How the Brain Learns Mathematics found “that the region of the brain that controls finger movement is the same region associated with counting” [iii] and he thought it was interesting that finger movement and counting are closely associated in the brain.

I asked Dr. Ansari what he thought about this, and he agreed there might be something to what David Sousa is thinking. This might explain why Dyslexia (a learning disorder that involves a difficulty with reading) and Dyscalculia (a math learning disability where children struggle with number sense) are so closely related. Dr. Ansari mentioned that 50% of children who struggle with math, also struggle with reading. The two go hand in hand.

We did cover the societal significance of our children or students learning to read proficiently by 3rd grade with last week’s Brain Fact Friday, episode #137[iv] where we examined the math learning disability dyscalculia, that’s closely related to dyslexia, but here’s a quick reminder of the importance of knowing why literacy is so important, especially understanding the implications of NOT staying on top of our children/students who might be struggling with the foundations of reading, or mathematics, at an early age.

When we look at the statistics, the importance of developing the foundational skills of literacy is clear. Just a reminder:

    • 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Over 70% of America’s inmates cannot read above a 4th grade level.

1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read at all.

Students who don’t read proficiently by the 3rd grade are 4 times likelier to drop out of school.

Nearly 85% of the juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, proving that there is a close relationship between illiteracy and crime.

When researching Dr. Ansari, I came across similar statistics for students who did not have the foundational skills in mathematics.

Did you know that:

    • “Low numeracy skills are associated with physical illness, depression and incarceration?” (Bynner and Parsons 2005)


Students with poor numerical and mathematical skills are more likely to default on their mortgage payments than those with strong mathematical skills “(Gerardi, Goetta and Meier 2013).[vi]

Dr. Daniel Ansari’s interview #138[vii] provided many insights of the importance of understanding how the brain learns, but one of the most profound analogies he gave was about the importance of looking at the foundational competencies in mathematics to help students “build a solid foundation to their learning”[viii] so they build a strong foundation that is not at risk of collapsing.

The Foundational Skills of Reading and Mathematics

There is a clear case for ensuring our students are proficient readers by 3rd grade, and we have just started to dive deep into strategies for struggling readers with episode #136 with the case study of Lois Letchford[ix] and how she helped her son to overcome dyslexia and graduate with his Ph.D. from Oxford University. Since this episode was released, I have had many emails with stories and case studies to support innovation in this field. Like Dr. Burton Clark[x], who sent me his story about beating the odds and overcoming dyslexia in the field of firefighting. We also can see the importance of developing the foundational skills in mathematics.

The core of reading, Dr. Ansari explains is “connecting sounds to letters” or phonemic awareness that David Sousa explains in depth in his “How the Brain Learns to Read” series and on episode #78[xi] but the core of math, Dr. Ansari reminds us is “connecting quantity to symbols” (or knowing that 3 apples is also three apples).

What Are the Foundational Reading Skills That Should Be in Place By 3rd Grade?

David Sousa’s How the Brain Learns to Read[xii] has a clear list on page 208, reminding us that

“Teachers make a difference. Students of experienced teachers with knowledge of scientifically-based methods had higher reading achievement scores than students of inexperienced teachers.” (David A Sousa)

Most researchers agree that these skills must be in place by 3rd grade to ensure students will be able to cope with the increased difficulty in future grades.

They must:

    • Master the alphabet

Read fluently

Understand what students are reading

Have strategies to sound out unfamiliar words

Be confident in spelling

Read almost any book in the elementary school library

Write almost anything that falls within a child’s knowledge and experience

Have an appetite for reading and writing

Now we learned from our interview #136 with Lois Letchford that learning to read doesn’t come naturally for some children. It’s a serious struggle. But her episode focused on some strategies to help the students who do struggle with reading, and our next interview coming in the third week of June that will feature Michal Ricca[xiii], the Founder of the Now I Can Read Program, from Williston, VT (USA) who has in the past 2 decades, taught over 1,000 students how to read. She will share why she saw the need to create an online reading program for students that has greatly expanded her reach beyond what she was able to do working with students one on one.  Her program helps students with more than reading, but also with the social and emotional aspect that comes along with a student who is struggling, and who just wants to fit in with the other children in their class.

Instructional Strategies to Help Improve Reading Comprehension from David Sousa’s How the Brain Learns to Read (Page 99-101).

  • Using graphic organizers
  • Asking questions
  • Summarizing
  • Mental imagery
  • Paraphrasing


What Are the Foundational Mathematical Skills That Should Be in Place By 3rd Grade?

When looking at the foundations to math that Dr. Ansari thinks are important to be in place by 3rd grade, he reminded me that math is much more complicated than reading, and that many skills need to be in place, but he did think that number sense is very important.

Students should understand:

  • Quantities
  • Concepts like more or less
  • Larger and smaller
  • Understanding the order in a line (1st, 2nd, 3rd)
  • Understand that symbols like 7 represent quantities and mean the same thing as seven.
  • Making number comparisons (like 12 is greater than 10)
  • Recognizing relationships between single items and groups of items (seven means one group of seven items)
  • Understand fractions, proportions, multiplying and dividing
  • Also the gradual progress of finger counting to the mental process of adding/subtraction numbers

Instructional Strategies

Dr. Ansari mentioned the 6 evidence-based strategies from the most recent report Assisting Struggling Students with Mathematics.[xiv] I will put the image of the 6 strategies in the show notes, but thought it was important to mention the importance of using number lines, since any time an abstract concept can be visualized, it makes it easier for the student to understand. Lois Letchford mentioned this with her work with her son, and that using a number line with the dates brought the maps they were studying to life.


David Souza uncovered finger movement and counting to be closely associated in the brain and Dr. Ansari spoke about finger gnosis and mathematical ability[xv] and that it is widely known finger gnosis (a child holds their hand under a table and someone touches their fingers, then asks, “which finger did I touch?” The ability to perform this test well is a strong predictor of future mathematical ability.

He also mentioned that even before brain scans, they knew from patients who had damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, the left angular gyrus, they became terrible at finger gnosis and terrible at math.

If you look at the diagram of the brain in the show notes, you will see how close the angular gyrus is to the Wernicke’s area (the part of the brain that controls speech) and the Broca’s area (also linked to speech production).

This is where Dr. Ansari says “we know that there’s a connection here, but we just don’t know the mechanism” which to me is the fascinating part of this work. Maybe next year, or maybe in 3 years’ time, neuroscience advancements will be made to show exactly what is happening in the brain when we are counting and using our fingers, but for now, we just know there is a connection, but what it is, remains to be discovered.

I hope today’s Brain Fact Friday has made you think, like it has opened up my mind, to all the possibilities that exist when we begin to study and learn this powerful topic of the human brain.

The next time you use your fingers to count something, or you watch someone else doing this, remember that what you are saying and counting with your fingers are firing off pathways in your brain that are very closely connected. I know we can’t see this happening, but we can get a clear image of this happening, and with time, we will learn even more about our brain, learning and ways we can use this information to improve our productive and results.

See you next week.


The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics by Stanislas Dehaene April 29, 2011


[i] Contact Andrea Samadi

[ii] Finger gnosis predicts a unique but small part of variance in initial arithmetic performance by Mirjam Wasner, Hans-Christopher Nuerk, Laura Martignon, Stephanie Roesch, Korbinian Moeller June 2016

[iii] How the Brain Learns Mathematics by David A Sousa Sept. 19, 2007 Page 15

[iv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #137 on “Understanding Dyscalculia: The Math Learning Disability”

[v] PEN Distinguished Lecture Series with Dr. Daniel Ansari Published on YouTube Dec.16th, 2020 (16:22)

[vi] PEN Distinguished Lecture Series with Dr. Daniel Ansari Published on YouTube Dec.16th, 2020 (17:05)

[vii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #138 with Dr. Daniel Ansari on “The Future of Educational Neuroscience”

[viii] PEN Distinguished Lecture Series with Dr. Daniel Ansari Published on YouTube Dec.16th, 2020 (18:51)

[ix]Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #136 with a Case Study of Lois Letchford “From Dyslexia to Ph.D. Oxford”

[x] The Dyslectic Legend Who Failed Probation by Dr. Burton Clark Dec. 4, 2020

[xi] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #78 with David Sousa on “How the Brain Learns”

[xii] David Sousa How the Brain Learns to Read March 2014

[xiii] Michal Ricca

[xiv] Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Intervention in the Elementary Grades March 2021 Institute of Education Sciences with Lynn S. Fuchs

[xv] The relationship between finger gnosis and mathematical ability by Marcie Penner-Wilger and Michael Anderson December 5, 2013