Around half the genes that influence whether a child is good at maths also shape their abilities in English, new research has found.
The discovery suggests that while maths and reading skills are known to run in families, it is not simply a case of being born with a “head” for either numbers or words.
The 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 almost 2,800 British families.
Twins and unrelated children were tested for reading comprehension and fluency, and answered maths questions based on the UK national curriculum.
Combining the test results with DNA data showed a substantial overlap in the genes that influence mathematics and reading.
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.”
Another member of the team, Dr Oliver Davis 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 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.
The findings also confirmed earlier research indicating that genetic differences account for most of the variation in reading and maths ability between children.
The findings come nine months after education secretary Michael Gove’s then-policy adviser Dominic Cummings sparked debate after saying that there was “strong resistance” in the education establishment to “accepting scientific evidence on genetics” and their strong influence over educational performance.
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