Foundations of children's numerical and mathematical skills: the roles of symbolic and nonsymbolic representations of numerical magnitude

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Advances in child development and behavior



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Numerical and mathematical skills are critical predictors of academic success. The last three decades have seen a substantial growth in our understanding of how the human mind and brain represent and process numbers. In particular, research has shown that we share with animals the ability to represent numerical magnitude (the total number of items in a set) and that preverbal infants can process numerical magnitude. Further research has shown that similar processing signatures characterize numerical magnitude processing across species and developmental time. These findings suggest that an approximate system for nonsymbolic (e.g., dot arrays) numerical magnitude representation serves as the basis for the acquisition of cultural, symbolic (e.g., Arabic numerals) representations of numerical magnitude. This chapter explores this hypothesis by reviewing studies that have examined the relation between individual differences in nonsymbolic numerical magnitude processing and symbolic math abilities (e.g., arithmetic). Furthermore, we examine the extent to which the available literature provides strong evidence for a link between symbolic and nonsymbolic representations of numerical magnitude at the behavioral and neural levels of analysis. We conclude that claims that symbolic number abilities are grounded in the approximate system for the nonsymbolic representation of numerical magnitude are not strongly supported by the available evidence. Alternative models and future research directions are discussed.

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