The Chinese Connection

SOE's Nuttall says Chinese-Americans who study Chinese score higher on the math portion of the SAT

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A firm grasp of math facts and solid computational skills help improve one's Scholastic Aptitude Test mathematics scores, but so might learning to read and write Chinese, according to Prof. Ronald Nuttall (SOE).

Assessing the standardized test scores of Chinese-American pupils, Nuttall and two colleagues found those who had studied Chinese did significantly better in math than those who had not, with an average difference ranging between 30 and 80 points. These findings were reported in the January edition of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology by Nuttall and his collaborators, Chieh Li, an assistant professor of school and counseling psychology at Northeastern University, and Shuwen Zhao, a professor of educational psychology at Capital Normal University in Beijing.

While further research is needed in some areas - including whether or not students from other ethnic backgrounds would similarly benefit - Nuttall said the talents required to decipher the complex Chinese language, with its thousands of individual word-characters, may be particularly well-suited to solving math problems.

"Great skill is needed to write Chinese characters, which are highly detailed in their dots, lines and angles," said Nuttall. "Each Chinese ideograph is in itself an entire word. There are probably 50,000 to 60,000 ideographs in Chinese. Every word in the Chinese dictionary has an ideograph.

Prof. Ronald Nuttall (SOE)-"Extensive training to learn to write Chinese requires good two-dimensional perception and memory. There are many items on the math SAT related to this geometric sense."

"It could very well be your brain gets trained to retrieve a lot of symbols and notations and recall what they mean. Mathematics also has a great many symbols and notations. It could be that if your brain is trained to do that well and fast, it could be better prepared to take the math SAT."

In a survey of Chinese-American students who had taken the SAT, young women who knew how to write Chinese reported an average score of 703 on the math portion of the test, compared to an average score of 622 for those who did not. Young men who knew Chinese averaged a score of 643, versus a score of 615 for those who did not.

"These differences are highly significant," said Nuttall. "They show that if students can write Chinese, they score better in math."

What accounts for the difference in math performance is unclear, said Nuttall. But he offered several possibilities.

"Extensive training to learn to write Chinese requires good two-dimensional perception and memory," he said. "There are many items on the math SAT related to this geometric sense."

It could be that students bright in math would be more inclined to take a challenging elective like Chinese in the first place, he said, or to have an easier time learning to speak and write it.

Another possibility is that Chinese-American students who know Chinese are likely to come from a traditional Chinese cultural background that prizes academic study, he said, and hence are more likely to do well on a standardized test.

But the researchers found that students who speak Chinese, while better in math, did no better on the verbal portion of the SAT than their non-Chinese speaking counterparts.

Nuttall said he and his associates are currently devising a program to teach Chinese to non-Chinese-American students to see if improved math scores would result.

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