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Sensitivity to numerical magnitudes is thought to provide a foundation for higher-level mathematical skills such as calculation. It is still unclear how symbolic (e.g. Arabic digits) and nonsymbolic (e.g. Dots) magnitude systems develop and how the two formats relate to one another. Some theories propose that children learn the meaning of symbolic numbers by scaffolding them onto a pre-existing nonsymbolic system (Approximate Number System). Others suggest that symbolic and nonsymbolic magnitudes have distinct and non-overlapping representations. In the present study, we examine the developmental trajectories of symbolic and nonsymbolic magnitude processing skills and how they relate to each other in the first year of formal schooling when children are becoming more fluent with symbolic numbers. Thirty Grade 1 children completed symbolic and nonsymbolic magnitude processing tasks at three time points in Grade 1. We found that symbolic and nonsymbolic magnitude processing skills had distinct developmental trajectories, where symbolic magnitude processing was characterized by greater gains than nonsymbolic skills over the one-year period in Grade 1. We further found that the development of the two formats only related to one another in the first half of the school year where symbolic magnitude processing skills influenced later nonsymbolic skills. These findings indicate that symbolic and nonsymbolic abilities have different developmental trajectories and that the development of symbolic abilities is not strongly linked to nonsymbolic representations by Grade 1. These findings also suggest that the relationship between symbolic and nonsymbolic processing is not as unidirectional as previously thought.
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