Acquiring academic skills: building blocks and determinants 

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Acquiring academic skills: building blocks and determinants

In contrast to other cognitive abilities such as language or reasoning, literacy and numeracy need to be explicitly taught to children. However, the success of this instruction hinges on the child’s initial cognitive skills, which are the building blocks of reading and mathematics (1.2.1), as well as on her socio-emotional skills, which may affect her approach to learning and behavior in the classroom (1.2.2). In addition, other socio-demographic factors come into play, likely exerting an influence on academic skills learning on top of their early influence on early cognitive development (1.2.3). We now delve into how these three aspects govern the acquisition of academic skills.

The role of cognitive abilities

Both reading and mathematics are cumulative processes that build on some key cognitive abilities. We first present the links between general cognitive development (intelligence) and academic skills, before focusing on specific cognitive domains (language, visuospatial and motor development, and executive functions).
General cognitive ability, or intelligence ntelligence tests were initially designed with the explicit purpose of predicting children’s future educational success (Binet & Simon, 1904). Similarly, it is from the observation that multiple school examination scores were all positively correlated that Charles Spearman extracted the first measure of general intelligence (the ‘g’ factor) (Spearman, 1904). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that IQ is one of the best predictors of academic achievement – if not the best, depending on the outcome measure used. Thus, the correlation between intelligence test score and academic skills lies between 0.5 and 0.8 (Deary et al., 2007; Rohde & Thompson, 2007; Roth et al., 2015). Nowadays, several standardized tests have been developed by psychologists to measure human intelligence; the most widely used for children being the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) for those aged 3 to 7, and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) for those aged 6 to 16. These tests measure the principal cognitive functions of an individual: processing speed, working memory, verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, and visual spatial skills, summed up in a total score: IQ (standardized with a mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15). The full-scale IQ score and the five subcomponents are thought to correspond, respectively, to the g factor and five broad abilities in the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) intelligence theory, in which human intelligence is modelled as a hierarchical structure with the g factor at the top stratum, hypothesized to be at the core of all broad abilities in the stratum beneath (Schneider & McGrew, 2012). General intellectual ability as measured by IQ tests can also be broken down into two more comprehensive components: verbal intelligence, and non-verbal intelligence, or crystallized (gc) and fluid intelligence (gf) (Cattell, 1963; Horn & Cattell, 1966). While both gc and gf are well correlated with academic performance, crystallized intelligence seems to have a higher predictive power than fluid intelligence – which makes sense, since crystallized intelligence encompasses acquired knowledge, reflecting prior learning (correlation of 0.36 to 0.65 for crystallized intelligence versus 0.26 to 0.40 for fluid intelligence; Postlethwaite, 2011).
We now look beyond these general standardized measures of cognition to understand how various components of cognitive ability support the acquisition of academic skills.

Language abilities

Language abilities are the backbone of learning to read, as one can easily imagine; but they are also essential in learning mathematics. Several aspects of language are crucial in the acquisition of literacy. The first one is phonological processing, which is the ability to perceive, store, access and manipulate speech sounds. A particularly useful component of phonological processing is phonological awareness (being aware of and manipulating speech sounds), which enables children to map graphic symbols to the sounds of spoken words (at a sublexical level), and hence plays an important role in decoding and spelling. Phonological awareness is the best predictor of word recognition (Melby-Lervåg et al., 2012) and a good predictor of spelling (Landerl & Wimmer, 2008; Lervåg & Hulme, 2010). The second aspect of early language ability that is crucial in literacy acquisition is language comprehension. This includes vocabulary (mapping phonological representations onto semantic representations), which is essential for reading comprehension (Hjetland et al., 2020; Ouellette, 2006). Beyond vocabulary, grammar (the implicit knowledge of syntax and morphology) (Durand et al., 2013; Hjetland, 2018; Hjetland et al., 2020; Lehrl et al., 2020; Muter et al., 2004; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Su et al., 2017) and conceptual knowledge (the understanding of concepts and classifications) (Hjetland et al., 2020; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002) play an important role in reading comprehension.
In parallel, language abilities also play multiple roles in the development of numeracy skills. Indeed, children need to associate the rote-learnt number words with the quantities they represent (Geary, 2013). Besides, simple arithmetic facts such as multiplications seem to be stored and retrieved from long-term verbal memory (Dehaene & Cohen, 1995). Lastly, in order to solve an arithmetic problem presented in sentences, children need to use their vocabulary and language comprehension abilities to understand the problem and translate it into an equation (Fuchs et al., 2010), and often keep the elements of the problem in verbal working memory. Thus, language skills have been found
to predict arithmetic abilities as well (Durand et al., 2005; Fuchs et al., 2010; Träff et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2017).

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Visuospatial abilities

Visuospatial abilities are important in the acquisition of both reading and mathematics. On one side, visuospatial skills are necessary to identify letters and segment written words into graphemes (letter or combination of letters transcribing phonemes). Few studies have examined the role of visuospatial skills in non-pathological reading, but the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) reported low univariate correlations with reading comprehension and word identification (around 0.2). In particular, deficits in visual attention have been proposed to account for the occurrence of developmental dyslexia in some children (Facoetti et al., 2010; Vidyasagar & Pammer, 2010). However visuospatial impairments could be a consequence rather than a cause of reading disorders (Ramus, 2003), and hence not be an early predictor.
On the other side, visuospatial abilities are an important foundation of numeracy acquisition. Indeed, children’s arithmetic abilities partly lie on the development of an accurate linear mental representation of quantity (Siegler & Booth, 2004). In addition, spatial processing helps to solve complex arithmetic problems which require multistep calculations (Dehaene & Cohen, 1995). Lastly, in arithmetic word problems3, visuospatial abilities may support the construction of a visual schematic representation of the problem, which in turn may improve performance (Boonen et al., 2013). Thus, visuospatial abilities have been found to be correlated with higher results in arithmetic concurrently (Hawes et al., 2019; Reuhkala, 2001; Träff et al., 2018) and longitudinally (Yang et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2014, 2017).

Fine motor abilitie

Motor development is an important area of cognitive development in the first years of life, which has been purported to foster the acquisition of academic skills in various ways. In particular, fine motor skills – “small muscle movements that require close eye–hand coordination” (Luo et al., 2007a) – may benefit both reading and mathematics because children with better fine motor skills have more opportunities to engage in learning activities promoting academic success (Suggate et al., 2019). Beyond this, fine motor skills may foster mathematic skills due to the fact that better finger-based representations of magnitudes may support the development of number sense – indeed, finger gnosis predicts later numerical abilities (Costa et al., 2011; Noël, 2005; Penner-Wilger et al., 2007). Thus, fine motor skills have been found to be positively associated with both reading outcomes (Cameron et al., 2012; Grissmer et al., 2010a; Pitchford et al., 2016) and mathematic outcomes (Carlson et al., 2013; Gashaj et al., 2019; Gomez et al., 2015; Grissmer et al., 2010b; Hawes et al., 2019; Luo et al., 2007b).

Table of contents :

Chapter 1 – General introduction
1.1 What shapes early cognitive development
1.1.1 Main predictors of cognitive development
1.1.2 The importance of controlling for confounding variables
1.1.3 From simple associations to complex relationships
1.2 Acquiring academic skills: building blocks and determinants
1.2.1 The role of cognitive abilities
1.2.2 The role of social, behavioral and emotional skills
1.2.3 The role of socio-demographic factors
1.3 Studying the acquisition of academic skills in France
1.3.1 Learning in France: an outlook
1.3.2 Data: two French cohort studies
1.3.3 Objectives and research questions of this dissertation
Chapter 2 – Intelligence and academic skills 
2.1 Predictors of the IQ-achievement gap
2.1.1 Abstract
2.1.2 Introduction
2.1.3 Method
2.1.4 Results
2.1.5 Discussion
2.1.6 Appendix A: Data
2.1.7 Appendix B : Results
2.2 Are high-IQ students more at risk of school failure?
2.2.1 Abstract
2.2.2 Introduction
2.2.3 Method
2.2.4 Results
2.2.5 Discussion
Chapter 3 – Early predictors of arithmetic skills 
3.1 Cognitive and environmental predictors of problem solving skills
3.1.1 Abstract
3.1.2 Introduction
3.1.3 Method
3.1.4 Results
3.1.5 Discussion
3.1.6 Appendix
3.2 Cognitive predictors of multizlication, addition and subtraction
3.2.1 Abstract
3.2.2 Introduction
3.2.3 Method
3.2.4 Results
3.2.5 Discussion
Chapter 4 – Early predictors of literacy skills 
4.1 Cognitive and environmental predictors of reading and spelling
4.1.1 Abstract
4.1.2 Introduction
4.1.3 Method
4.1.4 Results
4.1.5 Discussion
4.1.6 Appendix
Chapter 5 – Sex differences in academic skills 
5.1 Sex differences are modulated by evaluation type
5.1.1 Abstract
5.1.2 Introduction
5.1.3 Method
5.1.4 Results
5.1.5 Discussion
5.1.6 Appendix
Chapter 6 – General discussion
6.1 Cognitive and socio-emotional foundations of academic skills5
6.1.1 Cognitive skills
6.1.2 Socio-emotional skills
6.2 Environmental and individual influences on academic achievement
6.2.1 Parental socio-economic and cultural factors
6.2.2 Sex
6.2.3 Pre-natal and birth factors
6.3 General limitations
6.3.1 Genetic confounding
6.3.2 Correlation and causality
6.4 Practical implications and conclusion


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