Numerical Order Processing in Children: From Reversing the Distance-Effect to Predicting Arithmetic
Mind, Brain and Education
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Recent work has demonstrated that how we process the relative order—ordinality—of numbers may be key to understanding how we represent numbers symbolically, and has proven to be a robust predictor of more sophisticated math skills in both children and adults. However, it remains unclear whether numerical ordinality is primarily a by‐product of other numerical processes, such as familiarity with overlearned count sequence, or is in fact a fundamental property of symbolic number processing. In a sample of nearly 1,500 children, we show that the reversed distance effect—a hallmark of symbolic ordinal processing—obtains in children as young as first grade, and is larger for less familiar sets of numbers. Furthermore, we show that the children's efficiency in evaluating the simplest ordered sequences (e.g., 2‐3‐4, 6‐7‐8) captures more unique variance in mental arithmetic than any other type of numerical sequence, and that this result cannot be accounted for by counting ability. Indeed, performance on just five such trials captured more unique mental arithmetic variance than any of several other numerical tasks assessed here. In sum, our results are consistent with the notion that ordinality is a fundamental property of how children process numerical symbols, that this property helps underpin more complex math processing, and that it shapes numerical processing even at the earliest stages of elementary education.